The relationship between verbal and non-verbal behaviour

The most promising research methodology for studying the relationship between nonverbal and verbal behaviour

Three decades ago there was practically no scientific work done on nonverbal behaviour, except some rare cases of research. However, nowadays research on the relation between nonverbal and verbal behaviour seems to be widespread across different disciplines such as clinical, social or linguistic psychology. This is mirrored by the fact that fundamental studies and achievements have been attained within this field of research. The incredible fast speed of books being published and journal articles being written about body language and actual language reflects both the high amount of interest of the general public and scientists into this area and the great engagement and devotion of researchers involved (Rimé, 1985). The present brief paper will focus on presenting research methodologies which have proved to be most promising for the investigation of non-linguistic and linguistic speech. One particular research methodology cannot be pointed out as currently there are different valid and reliable ways of investigating into this matter.

Before outlining possible methodologies for investigating the speech, body language relationship it is useful to consider the study field’s research history.

It was Charles Darwin (1872) who pioneered hundred years ago in writing about unconsciously processed non-linguistic communication and in outlining the particular emotional nonverbal expressions and reactions of the human and animal body. Surprisingly, Darwin was back then certain about the now acknowledged fact that emotional body responses stem from the nervous system’s activity and are operating inside the unconscious awareness of mammals. He also observed that emotional expressions evolved due to the aim of species to survive through increasing group collectivism and guarding the offspring from enemies. Additionally, he promoted that a wide number of the nonverbal expressions of emotions were innate and not learned. This theory found supported by observations of children born blind who socially interact through clapping, smiling and laughing in spite of the fact they cannot perceive the reactions of others. The observation of animals, however demonstrated that there are different kinds of nonverbal expressions which accompany language with some being semantic content while others target at evoking appropriate nonverbal and verbal responses in others (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1980). The friendly smile of humans has, for instance, been found to be a potential control mechanism against aggressive behaviours in others by being a potential invitation for direct social interaction. Face-to-face eye contact, on the other hand, often results in aggressive behaviour since it is perceived as a threat. One can already realise that with the help of the above mentioned findings the relationship between body language and actual language can be scientifically analysed simply by observing species interact (Pally, 2001).

The actual scientific interest into this topic, however, commenced with the beginning of the 20th century, and with having a heavy focus on facial expressions. Anthropologists came to the conclusion that nonverbal communication does not appear by chance but is both learned like a language and while language is learned. Sapir (1949) for instance noted that one reacts to others’ body language “in accordance with an elaborate code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all” (p. 533). Nonetheless, did not make any systematic or scientific efforts in order to enlighten the relationship between linguistic and non-linguistic “speech” any further. Ekman (1975), Scheflen (1964, 1972, 1973), Hall (1966), were among those scientists who began with scientific research into body language. As a matter of fact, their effort was not valued by many but received with utter criticism and mockery. Since then, however, some accepted methodologies have been devised in order to investigate the relationship between speech and nonverbal communication and Davis (1971), for example, wrote that, in fact, psychiatry, ethology, psychology, anthropology and sociology are the five disciplines dealing nowadays with non-linguistic communication. She noted as well that those interested in the study of body motion (kinesics) usually prefer the so-called systems approach over others as “communication cannot be studied a unit at a time” but it “is an integrated system” that “must be analysed as a whole”. Therefore, one can conclude again that the way of observing humans or animals in naturalistic or experimental settings is an effective approach to decide over the relationship between spoken language and body language (Sielski, 1979). Cheney and Seyfarth’s (1990) naturalistic experiments can serve as support for this notion as they successfully investigated monkeys in their natural habitat and demonstrated that a monkey’s specific alarming vocal call triggers the fleeing of peers and thus implies that the behavioural reaction is related to the situational and not semantic context of the alarm signal. Dixon and colleagues’ (1989) observations on humans, can serve as another support for the fact that through simply observing and analysing how individuals act and react verbally and nonverbally one can come to scientifically sound conclusions. They found that body movements signalling discomfort and distress are often aimed at provoking comfort eliciting behaviours in others (Pally, 2001).

Another stem of research concentrates on the relation between neuronal brain activity and nonverbal-verbal communication. It has been found, with the help of neuroscience, for example that both the tendency of mother’s and their children to maintain stability (homeostasis) and a majority of their social interaction develops through nonverbal communication. Limbic components of the brain mediate the initiation and influence of nonverbal cues while manipulating, the autonomous nervous system, neurotransmitters, and hormone levels. As a consequence since the delivery of a child, the mother nonverbally interacts with her offspring through all senses and sensory systems (tactile, olfactory, visual, motor, and auditory systems).

Language becomes inextricably linked to nonverbal cues as is developed and integrated within the manifested nonverbal communication rituals, rules and habits of mother-infant interaction. Later on, the body language becomes, in fact, more sophisticated and develops parallel to actual language (Sigman & Ruskin, 1999).

In addition to that, the neurological based methodology successfully demonstrated with the help of patients suffering from brain lesions that the right hemisphere is designed for nonverbal communication whereas speech and verbal communication can be attributed to the left brain hemisphere. Henry (1993), for example, revealed that individuals suffering from impaired right brain hemispheres could not anymore decode nonverbal cues while patients suffering from strokes in the left hemisphere could not anymore articulate themselves verbally. Ekman (1990, 1993, 1997) is another well-known researcher who utilised the so-called Facial Action Coding System (FACS) in order to record and analyse facial expressions and movements through the objective and unobtrusive. The FACS was only recently (Ekman, 1994; Ekman et al., 2002) updated and can be described as the successor of the objective but intrusive electromyography technique which was used by Izard (1979, 1982). There are other widely accepted facial expression recording devices such as Katsikitis & Pilowsky’s (1988) FACEM, which monitors facial expressions with the help of twelve different distances between key points on the face. The most advance laboratory based work on nonverbal expressions was, however, conducted by Reisenzein (2000) who successfully minimised preceding technical limitations and problems and investigated the consistency of 4 elements of surprise such as participants’ facial expression, self-report of surprise, cognitive appraisal of the stimulus as unexpected, and reaction time to surprise (Russell et al., 2003).

Hence, studies on nonverbal communication are nowadays managed by using more and more sophisticated investigation techniques. As a matter of fact, advancement in discovering scientifically grounded relationships between one’s speech and body language are strongly correlated to the status of progress and perfection of the methods utilised for assessing, analysing and recording behaviours of interest.

Consequently, usage of coders, observers, decoders and raters, are inevitable components in the study of nonverbal behaviours (Fichten et al, 1992). Therefore, there is great emphasis on making sure that the appropriate research methodology is applied and researchers are nowadays required to be technical experts in filming, videotaping and audio-taping of participants. Most researchers within this field agree that in order to successfully investigate the interactive nonverbal and verbal communication one must either use naturalistic or ethological approaches. As a consequence and as a downside, the researcher is often doomed to watch or listen carefully for an incredible amount of hours recorded material again and again before an objective conclusion can be made about the relationship between language and body language. Many compare this tiresome approach to sculpturing as one cannot present the whole block of recorded material in the end but must mould and compress the analysed information into a half an hour presentation or a brief journal article (Rimé, 1985).

In sum, influential researchers like Rimé (1985) believe that body language is neither depending on nor complementing verbal utterance but both represent an entity which utilise analogue, parallel and multiple channels in the process of expression. Hence, film material consisting of conversations between two or more individuals are preferably used for studies as it is one of the only ways of analysing the relationship between nonverbal and verbal behaviour together and in relation to each other.


Cheney, D. & Seyfarth, R. (1990). How monkeys see the world. Chicago, IL:

University of Chicago Press.

Darwin, C., 1872. Origin of Species, Sixth Edition. London: Senate.

Davis, F. (1973). Inside Intuition: What we know about nonverbal communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dixon A. H., Fisch, H. V., Huber C. & Wasler, A. (1989), Ethologic studies in

animals and man: their use in psychiatry. Pharmacopsychiatry, 22:44–50.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1980), Strategies of social interaction. In: Emotion: Theory,

Research and Experience, ed. R. Plutchik and H. Kellerman. New York: Academic


Ekman, P. (1975). Face muscles talk every language. Psychology Today, pp.35-39.

Ekman, P. (1990), Voluntary facial action generates emotion specific autonomic

nervous system activity. Psychophysiology, 27:363–383.

Ekman, P. (1993), Facial expression and emotion. Amer. Psychol., 48:384–392.

Ekman P. (1994). Strong evidence for universals in facial expressions: a reply to Russell’s mistaken critique. Psychol. Bull, pp.115:268–87

Ekman P. (1997). Should we call it expression or communication? Innovation, 10, pp.333–44

Ekman P, Friesen WV, Hager JC (2002). New Version of the Facial Action Coding System. New Version/new version.html

Fichten, C. S., Tagalakis, V., Judd, Darlene; Wright, J., Amsel, R. (1992). Verbal and nonverbal communication cues in daily conversations and dating. Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 132 Issue 6, pp/751-770.

Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York: Doubleday.

Henry, J. P. (1993), Psychological and physiological responses to stress: The right hemisphere and the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, an inquiry into problems of human bonding. Physiolog. & Behav. Sci., 28, pp.369–387.

Izard, C. E. (1982). Measuring emotions in infants and children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Izard C. E. (1979). The Maximally DiscriminativeFacialMovement Coding System (MAX). Newark: Univ. Delaware, Comp. and Netw. Serv., Univ. Media Serv.

Katsikitis M. & Pilowsky I. (1988). A study of facial expression in Parkinson’s disease using a novel microcomputer-based method. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry, 51, pp.362–66

Reisenzein R. (2000). Exploring the strength of association between the components of emotion syndromes: the case of surprise. Cogn. Emot. 14:1–38

Rimé, B. (1985). The growing field of nonverbal behaviour: a review of twelve books on nonverbal behaviour and nonverbal communication. European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 15 Issue 2, pp.231-248.

Russell, J. A., Bachorowski, J. & Fernandez-Dols, J. (2003). Facial and vocal expressions of emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 54 Issue 1, pp329-350.

Sapir, E. (1949). Selected writing of Edward Sapir. Berkeley: D.G. Mandelbaum.

Scheflen, A. E. (1964). The significance of posture in communication systems. Psychiatry, pp.316-331.

Scheflen, A. E. (1972). Body language and social order. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Scheflen, A .E. (1973). How behaviour means. New York: Gordon Breach.

Sielski, L. M. (1979). Understanding Body Language. Personnel & Guidance Journal, Vol. 57 Issue 5, p238-243.

Sigman, M. & Ruskin, E. (1999). Nonverbal communication, play, and language skills. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 64 Issue 1, pp29-54.