Direct communication refers to the actual spoken words someone uses to express his or her meaning. In contrast, nonverbal communication refers to unspoken ways of expressing meaning, such as gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. In American culture, particularly American business, direct communication is highly valued. Communicators expect each other to say exactly what they mean and to speak honestly. American audiences prioritize directness. (For more information on audience and general American rhetoric, visit our resource page.) Communicators who use little direct communication may be seen as aloof by their peers. In reality, however, it is very common for communicators to use both direct and nonverbal communication to express their meaning; therefore, your success as a communicator in American culture will depend significantly on your ability to “read between the lines”—to recognize and understand the most common nonverbal communication cues.
What are Gestures?
American communicators often use gestures with their hands to either emphasize their speech or to substitute for speech. Here are some of the most common gestures in American culture:
- Hand Wave
- Folded Arms
- "Air Quotes"
- Chin on Hand
- Come Here
- Raised Hand
- Rubbed Hands
- Rubbed Chin
- Forehead Rub
This gesture is used by listeners to request from the speaker an opportunity to speak. It is customary for students in American educational settings to raise their hand to be acknowledged by the instructor. Speaking without raising one’s hand and being “called on” (invited to speak) by the speaker may be seen as rude. Typically, it is best to partially raise the arm while keeping the elbow bent, as seen in the example above.
This gesture is a sign of enthusiasm preceding a task. It shows that someone is about to begin an important or labor-intensive activity. It has a positive connotation, as if the speaker is excited to begin important hard work. A verbal equivalent may be “Let’s get down to business” or “Let’s get to work.”
What are facial expressions?
Communicators may also use their faces to convey indirect communication. Sometimes, a facial expression adds context to a gesture. Other times, the facial expression conveys its own, full message. Here are some examples of common facial expressions in American culture:
What is tone of voice?
American communication involves not just what people say but how they say it. A speaker can use tone of voice to accentuate his or her direct communication. Here are some of the ways in which tone of voice is used in American culture:
What are some other forms of indirect communication?
It is generally expected for American communicators to remain still unless there is a valid reason for moving (e.g., when gesturing). Pacing back and forth, swiveling in one’s seat, tapping one’s feet on the floor, tapping one’s fingers, playing with objects such as a pen or phone, and similar forms of “fidgeting” suggest nervousness (especially when done by speakers) and boredom (especially one done by listeners). They may also distract the speaker.
It is generally expected for listeners to remain completely silent while the speaker is speaking. Making noises could distract the speaker, and it also suggests a flippant attitude toward what the speaker is saying. Sighing (audibly breathing out) suggests frustration, anger, or impatience, even if the communicator does not mean it that way. Avoid sighing in formal situations. Yawning suggests boredom; if you must yawn, cover your mouth, and do not accompany the yawn with an audible noise.