American Nonverbal Communication

This resource was prepared by the Business Communications Lab at the Sam M. Walton College of Business
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Nonverbal Communication

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:

This gesture is used as a greeting and may also be used when departing.


This gesture means “good” or “okay.” It can signal approval, confirmation, and other positive social cues. A thumbs-up is semi-formal and is generally acceptable in casual professional settings.

The thumbs-down is the opposite of the thumbs-up. It implies disagreement, dissatisfaction, or a negative response to a question. While the thumbs-up has some place in casual but professional discourse, the thumbs-down is far more informal.

This gesture suggests (but does not always indicate) a serious, impatient, or frustrated attitude.

This gesture mimics typographical quotation marks: “ ” . Typically this gesture suggests that the communicator’s words should be taken ironically rather than literally (for example, a speaker might use air quotes around “hard-working” in the following statement: “Bob was a ‘hard-working’ student.” The air quotes would imply that Bob is actually not hard-working).

This gesture, which is more commonly used by listeners rather than speakers, suggests boredom or impatience.

This gesture indicates that the communicator wants the listener to come closer. Note: This is an informal gesture that may be considered rude if used in formal settings.

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.”

This gesture indicates that the communicator is thinking seriously about something or considering multiple options.

This gesture, sometimes called a “face palm” or “facepalm,” could indicate that the communicator is thinking seriously about something, or it may also suggest that the communicator is highly annoyed.

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:

Americans use this expression to accompany a greeting or to suggest happiness, approval, pride, and similar positive emotions. Smiling is equally appropriate in formal and informal situations. Smiling is considered a standard component of a friendly greeting. Note that Americans customarily smile in photographs, including formal photographs such as identification cards.
Americans use this expression to suggest anger, frustration, sadness, disapproval, disgust, or similar negative emotions. Be aware, however, that frowning may also be used to convey seriousness, confusion, or deep thought. Often, a frown of disapproval will be accompanied by a “no” head shake, whereas a thoughtful frown will be accompanied by a nod. Consider the context of the situation
This expression indicates surprise, disbelief or fear. An open mouth may accompany this expression. Wide eyes may be used to tell someone that what they are saying is very inappropriate or is a bad idea. This expression may also imply to someone that they should cease speaking immediately.
This expression has many different meanings. In some cases, it may suggest anger; in others, it suggests that the communicator is in deep thought. Sometimes the gesture can indicate an attempt to restrain emotional expression. Be aware that biting the lip may also be interpreted as a flirtatious expression, so you may wish to avoid this expression in formal settings. Lip biting can indicate that someone is trying not to say something that they strongly wish to say, as in the example above.
 When someone exhales in a visible and exaggerated fashion, it indicates frustration, exhaustion, or some combination of the two. This gesture would be rude as a response to direct communication, instruction, or criticism. It may be seen as friendly if it is acknowledging a frustration shared by two peers dealing with the same problem.

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:  

Speakers are expected to adjust the volume of their voices to accommodate the speaking situation (e.g., the number of listeners, the physical space in which the conversation takes place, and the physical distance between speaker and listener(s)). Speakers who speak too softly come across as unconfident and may frustrate listeners if they must struggle to hear the speaker. In contrast, speakers who speak too loudly come across as aggressive and may offend listeners; this is because a louder voice is associated with anger in American culture. However, effective speakers may occasionally raise their volume when discussing certain topics to add emphasis to those topics.
Speakers are expected to match the formality of the language they use to the speaking situation. In relatively informal situations, such as gatherings among close friends or family members, speakers are expected to use the elements of an informal tone (e.g., slang, colloquial language, and idiomatic expressions); however, in formal situations, such as classrooms or office meetings, speakers are expected to avoid these elements and maintain a formal, professional tone. Speakers who use an inappropriate tone for the occasion risk offending their listeners. See our resource on General Rules for Business Communication for more information about tone.
American speakers can subtly change the meaning of what they say simply by giving emphasis to different words in a sentence (i.e., by stating those words more loudly or slowly than the others). For example, consider the following three sentences, where the words in italics receive the most emphasis: I’m not saying that you stole those books. (Here, the speaker implies that while he is not outright making the claim, he is certainly thinking it to himself) I’m not saying that you stole those books. (Here, the speaker implies that someone else stole the books) I’m not saying that you stole those books. (Here, the speaker implies that the listener stole other books)
Tempo refers to how quickly a speaker speaks. In most cases, American speakers are expected to speak at a moderate pace: speaking too quickly may cause listeners to miss important information, but speaking too slowly may bore or frustrate listeners. Effective speakers may, however, occasionally slow down their speech to add emphasis to certain points.

What are some other forms of indirect communication?


Eye Contact
American communicators are expected to maintain eye contact with their fellow communicators, whether they are speaking or listening. By maintaining eye contact with their listener(s), speakers send the message that what they are saying is worth listening to. As a listener, avoiding eye contact by looking to the sides of the speaker suggests a lack of interest in what the speaker has to say. Avoiding eye contact by looking down suggests that the listener is intimidated by the speaker. Avoiding eye contact by looking up—or rolling the eyes—suggests that the listener is annoyed by the speaker. Any of these methods of avoiding eye contact (but especially looking up or rolling the eyes) may offend the speaker. See our resources on Delivery for more information about eye contact.  Note: Making prolonged eye contact with (staring at) someone who is not either speaking to you or hearing you speak is often considered rude in American culture.
Rolling Eyes

Eye rolls are a sign of severe exasperation. It shows that ou disregard and are annoyed by what someone is saying or doing. In formal settings, there are few if any instances where an eye roll would be appropriate. This sends a confrontational and dismissive message.

It is expected for American communicators to stand or sit up straight rather than hunched over. Maintaining an erect posture indicates that the communicator is confident and serious; in contrast, a hunched posture suggests a lack of confidence or motivation

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.