20 Verbal and Non-verbal Communication

Verbal and Non-verbal Communication

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • understand the cultural impact of different styles of verbal communication, including direct and indirect styles;
  • recognize the importance of non-verbal communication.

Why Is This Important?

Communication is culturally dependent. The way that a person uses verbal and non-verbal communication impacts the message they deliver to others as well as how they perceive messages that they receive from others. It is important to be aware of how your verbal and non-verbal communication differs from those around you so that you can adapt your messages to reduce miscommunications and misunderstandings.

Verbal Communication

Verbal communication is the words and language a person uses to communicate. Words and language are culturally dependent and they send a message about where a person is from. When a person uses the same words and language as those in their group they feel part of a bigger whole; however, when that person is around people from a different group, who are speaking differently from themselves, they feel like an outsider.

What would your life be like if you had been raised in a country other than the one where you grew up? You would have learned another set of customs, values, traditions, and different language patterns and ways of communicating. You would be a different person who communicated in different ways.

Cultural rules about when and how certain speech acts can be performed may differ greatly. In some cultures, such as in Canada, speech is highly valued, and it is important to be articulate and well-spoken in personal as well as public settings. People in cultures like Canada tend to use language as a powerful tool to discover and express truth, as well as to extend themselves and have an impact on others. In Canada, people tend to take silence as a sign of indifference, indignation, objection, and even hostility. The silence confuses and confounds Canadians since it is so different from expected behaviour. Many are even embarrassed by silence and feel compelled to fill the silence with words so they are no longer uncomfortable. Or, if a question is not answered immediately, people are concerned that the speaker may think that they do not know the answer.

Direct vs. Indirect

Whether a person communicates directly or indirectly is dependent on their culture. Cultures with direct styles ask for more information, whereas cultures with indirect styles may not feel comfortable either giving or asking for information. If an instructor from a verbally direct culture receives a poorly written assignment, they might say, “You have made many errors in this report. Go back and proofread this report to check for errors.” A verbally indirect instructor who receives a poorly written report, might say, “Readers may have questions about this report. Can you check this over one more time?” Good intercultural communication involves slowing down and increasing your awareness about the intended meaning from other people’s messages. You should listen and observe how others get information from one another. Remember to watch for variations impacted by status and relationship.

Direct styles are those in which verbal messages reveal the speaker’s true intentions, needs, wants, and desires. The focus is on accomplishing a task. The message is clear and to the point, without hidden intentions or implied meanings. The communication tends to be impersonal. Conflict is discussed openly and people say what they think. In Canada, professional correspondence is expected to be short and to the point. “What can I do for you?” is a common question when a business person receives a call from a stranger; it is an accepted way of asking the caller to state their business.

Indirect styles are those in which communication is often designed to hide or minimize the speaker’s true intentions, needs, wants, and desires. Communication tends to be personal and focuses on the relationship between the speakers. The language may be subtle and the speaker may be looking for a “softer” way to communicate a problem by providing many contextual cues. A hidden meaning may be embedded into the message because harmony and “saving face” is more important than truth and confrontation. In indirect cultures, long before the topic of business is raised, business conversations may start with discussions of the weather, family, or sports, as the partners gain a sense of each other.

Multiple Perspectives

Direct vs. Indirect in Canada

Communities in Canada tend to speak in a more direct manner. This means college students are generally expected to:

  • front-load the message by stating the main idea at the beginning (for good news);
  • ask their instructor a question when they don’t understand;
  • tell group members why they need to reschedule a group meeting;
  • ask their instructor for an extension on an assignment before the assignment is due.

Even though direct communication is accepted in North America, when bad or negative news is being shared, a more indirect style is preferred. You must add softeners to your language to cushion the negative message. This means college students are generally expected to:

  • share a compliment or appreciation before stating the bad news and state the bad news at the end of the message;
  • make requests instead of demands, such as, “Would it be possible to get an extension on this assignment?” instead of, “Give me an extension on this assignment”;
  • use softeners to cushion the phrase, such as, “I wonder if it would be a good idea to switch assignment topics?” instead of, “We have to switch assignment topics.”


Test your knowledge of direct and indirect communication by labelling the phrases below.


A person sitting on a couch communicating with someone across the room
A person sitting on a couch communicating with someone across the room. Image Source: Unsplash

Non-verbal Communication

Understanding non-verbal communication is important and challenging. It’s important because much meaning is conveyed non-verbally, and challenging because non-verbal communication is often multi-channeled and culturally specific.

Human beings all have the capacity to make the same gestures and expressions, but not all of those gestures and expressions have the same meaning across cultures. Types of non-verbal communication vary considerably based on culture and country of origin. Every culture interprets posture, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, vocal noises, and use of space differently. Non-verbal communication contributes a large part to the message the listener receives. Sometimes we put a lot of effort into choosing the words we use when communicating; however, it is really our body language that is influencing the message the receiver is getting.

Types of Non-verbal Communication

  • Movements: We use facial expressions, gestures, and posture to enhance our message.
  • Eye contact: We use our eyes to express emotion, show respect, and demonstrate that we are listening.
  • Physical appearance: We use our clothing, hair style, and personal grooming to communicate our power level in a particular environment.
  • Proxemics: We use proximity to the person we are interacting with to communicate relationship level. People from diverse cultures may have different normative space expectations. If you are from a large urban area, having people stand close to you may be normal. If you are from a culture where people expect more space, someone may be standing “too close” to you for comfort and not know it. We recognize the basic need for personal space, but the normative expectations for space vary greatly by culture.

Multiple Perspectives

Non-verbal Communication in Canada

In Canada, a person’s non-verbal body language communicates a lot of information to the listener. This means that college students are generally expected to:

  • make eye contact to show that they are interested and confident;
  • maintain a well groomed, professional appearance with business-casual attire in order to demonstrate respect for the college environment;
  • adjust their distance from the listener depending on familiarity.
    • In Canada, intimate space ranges from 0-18 inches. Personal space is the distance we occupy during encounters with friends and ranges from 18 inches to 4 feet. Many people use social space in social situations or with strangers, and this ranges from 4 to 12 feet. In public space, when among strangers, the distance ranges from 12 feet and beyond.

Indigenous cultures may view holding eye contact as a sign of disrespect and/or think it is unimportant when showing that the listener is paying attention.

Communicating Between Cultures

In college you will be communicating with people from many different cultures. Try adapting to other people’s communication preferences. Notice how long a turn people take when speaking, how quickly or slowly they speak, how direct or indirect they are, and how much they appear to want to talk compared to you. You may also need to learn and practice cultural norms for non-verbal behaviours, including eye contact, power distance, and touch. Avoid mimicking people directly but instead take note of their behaviours, consider their perspectives, and think about how you can adapt your behaviour to match the culture of your surroundings.

Key Takeaways

Verbal communication (the words and language we use) and non-verbal communication (the facial expressions and body language we use) are culturally dependent and send specific messages to the receiver. As we interact with people from diverse groups, it is important to adapt our verbal and non-verbal communication styles to clearly communicate our message to the listener.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from Intercultural Communication for the Community College by Karen Krumrey-Fulks, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.