Have you ever received an email or text message and completely misread the tone and intention of the sender? Maybe you sent someone good news and expected an enthusiastic response but received a one-word text reply, “Great.” Had you been talking with the person face-to-face, her excited smile, happy voice, and warm hug would have communicated her true intention. But without these nonverbal cues that can’t be sent via text, her reply seems underwhelming
This is one everyday illustration of the importance of nonverbal communication. When most people think of language, they consider the sounds and words we put together to convey messages to those around us. But in fact, a lot more goes into our communication than the actual words we speak. Facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all accompany the content of the words we say and contribute to the message we communicate, whether intentionally or not. These concepts are known as nonverbal communication. Using and understanding nonverbal communication appropriately is essential for successfully relaying or comprehending a message. Consider the following scenario:
A child asks for help figuring out the directions for a new game. His brother answers with the words, “Yeah, sure.” Depending on the brother’s nonverbal communication, he may be relaying one of several very different messages. Consider whether:
• His brother answers, “Yeah, sure,” after a delay, in an absent-minded tone of voice, without looking up from what he is doing.
• His brother immediately looks up from what he is doing and exclaims, “Yeah, sure!” with a grin on his face.
• His brother slowly turns away from what he’s doing, sighs, and answers, “Yeah, sure,” as he slowly gets out of his chair, looking bored or annoyed.
In each of these scenarios, the brother uses the same words to reply, but his responses carry very different meanings. The first response really sends the message, “No, not right now, I’m busy;” the second response clearly states, “Yes, I’d love to help you now,” and the third response indicates, “Fine, I’ll help you, but I’m not happy about it.” This all must be gleaned from the nonverbal communication signals that the brother sends.
Nonverbal communication is something that a lot of children pick up naturally without much direct instruction, but for children who struggle with social pragmatics (the use of language in a social context), these concepts sometimes need to be taught explicitly, because the ramifications for misusing nonverbal cues are significant. Imagine the difficulties a person would run into if he did not understand the sarcasm in a peer’s reply, “Yeah, I’d love to play that again,” or if he didn’t realize what he was unintentionally communicating when he turned and looked away from his teacher while she was answering his question.
Fortunately, nonverbal communication is something that can be taught and learned, and is often a part of speech/language therapy for social pragmatics. The use of pictures, video models, and role play can be effective tools for teaching children how to understand others’ nonverbal signals – to interpret them almost as a second language layered on top of spoken words. With these strategies and guided practice, as well as some in-the-moment teaching, students can also learn to be sure they themselves are sending the signals they mean to, to ensure successful communication.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.