What are the 5 functions of nonverbal communication?

hand body language

Using words is just one of the many ways we express ourselves. How other people understand us is not even influenced by words alone. In fact, only 7% of people’s interpretation of a message is from what we say. The other 93% is based on nonverbal cues; they’re very powerful. This means that you should learn what are the 5 functions of nonverbal communication to be an effective communicator.

Before we dive into what those are, I'd like to invite you to join our Personal Development Facebook Support Group. 

In there, you can network and exchange ideas with other like-minded people on topics such as improving your communication skills, building self-esteem, becoming more productive, and more.

You will also have first access to any special offers such as free book giveaways that we often run. Hope to see you in the group!

Definition of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is a form of communication that doesn’t involve words. Instead, it uses body language like facial expressions, gestures, and posture. You can also see it in routines and habits.

People always use nonverbal and verbal communication together. For example, teachers use body movements when explaining lessons to students. Parents hug their kids while saying how proud they are of them. You frown when someone says something upsetting. Also, you slouch while telling your friend that you’re tired. See? We use them together all the time.

Most of the time, nonverbal communication is involuntary and unconscious. It’s an automatic response to many situations. For example, you may fidget without being aware of it when you feel nervous. Also, nonverbal communication doesn’t carry the same meaning to different cultures. In most countries, a nod means yes but in Bulgaria, it means no.

We always use nonverbal cues. They affect so much of our communication skills. They can either support or destroy good intentions. You must teach yourself how to use them.

Vocal and Non-Vocal Elements of Nonverbal Communication

The word vocal means relating to a person’s voice. Yes, nonverbal communication has aspects that you can hear. It’s not only about body movements and expressions, which are the non-vocal elements. The vocal elements refer to paralanguage. It’s the voice or sound you hear aside from the actual words, such as the person’s tone, pitch, intonation, volume, and pace.

Verbal communication also has vocal and non-vocal elements. The vocal elements are, of course, the spoken words. The non-vocal elements refer to symbols that aren’t spoken. Some very good examples of this are sign language and written messages. These forms are soundless, but they deliver words.

5 Functions of Nonverbal Communication

nonverbal communication women

The 5 functions of nonverbal communication are Reinforcement, Substitution, Contradiction, Accentuation, and Regulation. These functions help both the sender and the receiver of a message. We will explain them thoroughly in this section.

1. Reinforcement

This function means that you can use nonverbal communication to duplicate and support a verbal message. This function makes a spoken message more clear to avoid misunderstandings.

When your sister joins a competition, you not only say “good luck.” You hug her. You smile and cheer her on as you say encouraging words. Then, when the competition starts, you not only shout her name. You also wave your hands, clap, and jump to show that you support her. Nonverbal cues confirm the message so that the receiver can understand it well.

Likewise, when you’re mad at your brother, you don’t simply say it. You also frown and raise your voice. In extreme cases, you may even lash out. You clench your fist, stamp your feet as you walk out, and slam the door hard. The combination of your verbal and nonverbal messages confirms your anger.

Now, imagine the scenarios above without the body language. Imagine yourself saying “good luck” to your sister without sounding excited. Imagine telling your brother that you’re mad at him without frowning or raising your voice. You seem like a robot, don’t you? Also, your siblings think that what you say may not be true. This is what the reinforcement function is for. It adds clarity and emotion to your message so the receiver can understand what you mean.

In fact, your nonverbal cues give the meaning and emotion to your verbal message. The meaning of words depends on the sender’s tone and body language. Saying “good luck” with a crossed arm and a low voice can mean you don’t want your sister to win. Saying it with a chuckle and an eye roll can mean that you don’t think she can win.

People use the reinforcement function when applying for jobs. In interviews, employers are very observant of body language and paralanguage. They give clues to your thoughts and emotions because they’re involuntary. So, you should master this function. When you talk, use the correct hand gestures with good timing. Moderate your voice, speak at a good pace, and mind your posture. All this can support your claims of being a good candidate.

Remember that nonverbal cues have different meanings in other countries. This is helpful if you travel a lot. Read about the nonverbal communication in the countries you’re traveling to. This will help you fit in well and stay out of trouble.

2. Substitution

There are times when nonverbal communication is enough to send a message. It can be more expressive and meaningful than words. In many cases, it’s easier to do and understand. Also, it can be performed in various ways, so it’s a versatile communication tool.

Some of the most common substitutions we use are waving our hands instead of saying “hello” or “goodbye.” Oftentimes, we also hold a hand up instead of asking someone to stop talking. When our loved ones break down or lash out, we choose to touch them gently rather than tell them to take it easy. In these scenarios, our nonverbal cues are better tools than words in expressing a message.

Aside from gestures, nonverbal communication is also achieved through eye contact and closeness. For example, if you want a person to leave you alone, you can simply give him an intense stare and move closer to him. We can also see mean people do this. They often take up other people’s space as a way of intimidating them or driving them away. Moving into someone’s space sends a much stronger message than telling them to go away.

One of the best uses of the substitution function is as a solution to language barriers. People use different languages, while others can’t speak at all. Babies, for example, are not able to use words. But, we can observe their reactions and body language to know what they want.

When you visit other countries and cultures, you will rely on nonverbal communication. This is how you make sure you understand what the natives are saying. For example, they act out what they say when they give you directions or explain something that’s new to you.

Nonverbal communication also substitutes words when dealing with heightened emotions. When receiving great news, you often leap in happiness rather than saying, “I’m so happy.” When you get hurt, you will find yourself speechless but in tears. When something shocks you, your body responds with a dropped jaw. You won’t even be able to say a word.

Another useful use of the substitution function is in sensitive situations. Sometimes, words should not be said out loud because of the effect they may have on other people. In these cases, it’s better to give nonverbal cues than to say something. We also use gestures to send silent messages to people that we don’t want others to notice. An example is when we’re attending a meeting or seminar. You use gestures to excuse yourself, so you don’t disturb other attendees.

This function in the 5 functions of nonverbal communication is also useful when your surroundings are noisy or crowded. When you’re in a concert with a friend, you use signs and signals to communicate. The same can be done in restaurants. To avoid disturbing other diners, you signal waiters instead of calling out to them.

Despite all the benefits of this function, we have to be careful in using it. Without words, nonverbal cues can be confusing. They can mean different things to other people. To some degree, they’re subjective because people have different ways of gesturing messages.

3. Contradiction

Verbal and nonverbal communication are two sides of the same coin. But, they sometimes send opposite messages. This is where the contradiction function comes in. It results in mixed messages. You’ve probably heard people tell you that you look terrible; but, they look at you as if you’re a beautiful painting. That means that they’re just teasing you, and they think you’re gorgeous.

Some mixed messages can confuse and even hurt people. Others use contradicting verbal and non-verbal cues to make insults. A classic example of this is sarcasm. Sarcastic people are good at saying the opposite of what they think by contradicting words and paralanguage. When your food tastes bland, they might say, “What a flavorful meal.” The emphasis on flavorful gives the sarcasm away.

Contradictions can also occur unconsciously. Sometimes, we notice people acting differently than what they say. When this happens, we get confused. Our common reaction is to observe their body language and behavior to find out what they mean. For example, your partner might tell you that she’s okay. But, you can notice that she doesn’t enjoy the same things anymore.

In the scenario above, you’ll most likely conclude that she’s lying; she’s not okay. That’s because people trust nonverbal cues more than words. Nonverbal cues are developed way before we learn to speak. Take the substitution function in babies, for example. When we talked about the evolution of communication, gestures, and body language came first before verbal language. Nonverbal communication is more natural. It occurs automatically, so it’s hard to fake. That’s what makes them more believable than the words we say.

If you notice, reading body language is an interesting topic for many. Together with facial expressions, they give clues on whether a person is lying. Knowing when the contradiction function occurs is a powerful tool in reading and handling people.

4. Accentuation

The accentuation function is like an upgrade to the reinforcement function. To accentuate means to put emphasis on something. While the reinforcement function supports the meaning of your words, the accentuation function adds intensity or power to them.

Imagine seeing a friend after a long time. We say to them, “I’m so glad to see you!”. To reinforce our message, we smile and hold them tight. To accentuate it, we say our words louder, we speak with so much excitement, and we smile bigger.

We often observe accentuation when we say something exciting. You remember that time when your friend told you she’s going on a company-paid trip? It’s impossible not to notice that her eyes and smile are wide, and she speaks fast and loud. Her paralanguage and body language give power to her verbal message, “I’m so excited!”.

We also observe this when someone preaches or speaks in campaigns. That person will speak loud and fast, pace across the stage, and use huge hand movements to give power to their words. The accentuation function is like the exclamation mark in our writing. It shows the strength in our words.

5. Regulation

The last part of the 5 functions of nonverbal communication can also be used to regulate the flow of our conversations. The regulation function helps us take turns in speaking, without using any words, so we don’t interrupt others. It helps us send signals when we want a response or when we’re done talking and want someone else to talk. We can use paralanguage, gestures, and eye contact for this function.

Pitch is a useful paralanguage in expressing our intention to ask a question. Raising our pitch or intonation at the end of a sentence cues others that we’re asking them. On the other hand, when we lower our pitch, it means our sentence has ended. This tells the audience that they can now clap for your speech.

The volume of our voice and the pauses we take also mean something. Making our voice louder in some parts of our speech means that we need the audience to pay attention to the point we’re making. It’s like telling the audience that you’re now saying the climax or the most important part of your speech. Pausing also gives a signal. It tells your audience to think about what you just said. Pausing gives them time to get your point. This is a very powerful speech tool used by speakers and politicians.

As we talk, we also use our body to direct the audience’s attention toward something or someone. For example, when we want to thank someone, we turn our body toward them. Sometimes, we use our hands to ask them to stand up so everyone can see them in the crowd.

We also use body language to send signals when we want to talk or ask others to talk. For example, if you’re part of an audience, you may raise your hand to signal that you want to ask or say something. You don’t say your intentions out loud because you’re going to interrupt the speaker. And as a speaker, you also use your body language to signal the next speaker to prepare to take over.

Gestures are also useful in signaling people that you need more time to speak. When you’re conducting a seminar, you can use hand gestures to tell the host to extend your time. If you’re using slides in your seminar, hand gestures are also useful in asking someone to go to the next slide. This regulates the flow of your speech without interrupting it.

You may notice that some of the examples are substitution functions. Yes, they are; and the nonverbal substitutions you make can be used to regulate your speech. That’s why they’re written in this section. The regulation function is very helpful in formal speeches. It’s also helpful when you facilitate conversations as long as the meaning of the nonverbal cues you make is the same to everyone involved.


Nonverbal communication is a versatile, useful, and powerful tool. It works with verbal communication to help us send clear and strong messages. It’s very helpful in avoiding misunderstandings that affect conversations and relationships among people. The 5 functions of nonverbal communication above prove this.

You have to be knowledgeable in using nonverbal communication. Mastery of this tool can help you become a better speaker and a person for that matter. It can help you lead good and meaningful conversations. It can also help you express your intentions and deliver your messages better.

Remember that it can cause misunderstandings, too. People give different meanings to nonverbal cues. So, it’s a good tip to know your audience before you speak. Be careful in using nonverbal communication because it’s very hard to fake. Be clear on your intentions and work hard to be a better communicator.

If you want to learn more about the 5 functions of nonverbal communication and other communication tips, check out my book Communication Skills Training: How to Talk to Anyone, Connect Effortlessly, Develop Charisma, and Become a People Person. Using nonverbal communication demands a level of emotional intelligence to connect with people effectively. This book will help you with that.

What do you think about the ideas in this article? We want to hear your thoughts, so don’t forget to leave a comment! Share this valuable information so others can learn how to use nonverbal communication, too. May you learn to master this helpful tool. Good luck!

Read Next – Why Communication Is Important in Business and Life

18 thoughts on “What are the 5 functions of nonverbal communication?”

Leave a Comment