Dr. Ulrike Wrobel


Non-verbal Communication


What is the meaning of non-verbal communication? What is the content of the word non-verbal communication and what are the limits of this concept? Different researchers gave different answers. Some of them limit nonverbal communication to visible signals, others also include audible vocal signals, such as volume, speech tempo or stress.


Do we have to have a look at clothing, haircut, and makeup to do an analysis of someone’s nonverbal communication? The borders of nonverbal communication are blurred and there is uncertainty with regard to the delimitation from other research areas such as anthropology, zoology, proxemics, human-machine interaction or theater and speech sciences.


One reason for this ambiguity lies in the name of the discipline itself: non-verbal communication is a negative notion. It refers to something, that is not – and it doesn’t say, what it is. The word verbal originates from the Latin verbum word. The literal translation of nonverbal communication means "non-word-referring utterance". The questions is, what that should be – and what it should not be.

Analysis of nonverbal communication – a technical challenge


The core of nonverbal communication is body movements – except the ones of the tongue and other articulation movements that are used to produce speech sounds (which are part of verbal communication).


Articulation movements to produce speech sounds are transitory, as well as movements of the body. A word, a facial expression, the head tilt, or gestures, are gone in the moment they have been uttered. Human memory is not able to deal with such movement informations appropriately. In order to analyse non-verbal communicative movements, you have to make them last. A simple foto for example gives a pure static state, and three-dimensional movements cannot be captured without an information loss on a two-dimensional flat paper or screen. Therefore a dynamic form of storage such a film is the best.


It was not until this millennium that a computer program was developed that satisfied these demands and is therefore suitable for the analysis of non-verbal communication. A film is displayed and visual movements can be described, interpreted and dissected simultaneously in order to analyse them. The program is called ELAN and was developed by the Max Planck Institute Nijmegen in 2001 (see literature and link).


The following screenshot shows how I used ELAN to analyse the gestures Donald Trumps made in his inaugural address.