Function and Impact of Nonverbal Communication in a Computer Mediated Communication Context: An Investigation of Defining Issues
Derek R. Lane
University of Oklahoma
Derek is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Kentucky and can be reached at drlane@pop.uky.edu
 
 
 
 
Running head: NONVERBAL DEFINING ISSUES

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to examine nonverbal communication within the specific context of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and thereby illustrate the four defining issues by which nonverbal communication is differentiated from nonverbal behavior. Three major sections delineate the framework of this paper. The first section describes the theoretical and empirical bases of nonverbal communication which address the four defining issues: (a) intent and awareness, (b) issues of meaning, (c) sharedness, and (d) codification which distinguish nonverbal communication from nonverbal behavior. The second section will describe computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a metatheoretical framework for understanding a specific conceptualization (message orientation) of nonverbal communication. The final section will illustrate how nonverbal communication can been studied in a computer-mediated communication context.


Function and Impact of Nonverbal Communication in a Computer Mediated Communication Context: An Investigation of
Defining Issues Over the past decade several theories have been proposed and experimental research conducted on the relational and interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction (Walther & Tidwell, 1994; Walther, 1994; Rice, 1993; Walther, 1993; Walther, 1992; Walther & Burgoon, 1992; Archer, 1990; Hesse, Werner, & Altman, 1988; Rice & Love, 1987; Zimmerman, 1987; Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). These studies have concluded that "computer-mediated communication (CMC) differs from face-to-face (FtF) communication in striking, interpersonally related ways" (Walther & Tidwell, 1994). The basis for these differences, according to several perspectives, is that relationally-rich nonverbal cues are absent in CMC. Walther (1993) suggests that "the lack of nonverbal cues in CMC has caused several researchers to suggest that social cognitive process may differ between CMC and face-to-face (FtF) interaction" (p. 381). Culnan and Markus (1987) have dubbed these hypotheses the "cues-filtered-out" perspective (p. 423).

Recently, however, it has been noted that "there is one nonverbal code system which remains in CMC . . . which has been neglected in previous research--chronemics" (Walther & Tidwell, 1994). This discovery has prompted the current need to investigate nonverbal communication in a computer-mediated context.

The purpose of this paper is to examine nonverbal communication within the specific context of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and thereby illustrate the four defining issues by which nonverbal communication can be operationalized. Three major sections delineate the framework of this paper. The first section describes the theoretical and empirical bases of nonverbal communication which address the four defining issues: (a) intent and awareness, (b) issues of meaning, (c) sharedness, and (d) codification, which distinguish nonverbal communication from nonverbal behavior. The second section will describe computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a metatheoretical framework for understanding a specific conceptualization (message orientation) of nonverbal communication. The final section will illustrate how nonverbal communication can be studied in a computer-mediated communication context.


Theoretical and Empirical Bases of Nonverbal Communication

Knapp, Wiemann, and Daly (1978) suggest that the publishing of Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations (Ruesch and Kees, 1956) was consequential in establishing a scholarly interest in the study of nonverbal communication. Knapp, et al. (1978) write,

The phrase "nonverbal communication" was used earlier than 1956, but that year seems to mark a crucial juncture in the scholarly and popular exposure to a term which attempted to encompass numerous message sources with were not then a part of typical approaches to the study of human communication--namely, written and spoken language (p. 271).

In their overview of "the state of the art" of nonverbal communication research, Harper, Wiens, and Matarazzo (1978) discuss the dilemma facing nonverbal communication scholars, There has been a variety of approaches employed in the study of nonverbal communication and, as yet, there is no real consensus as to its exact definition, the domain that it encompasses, or what the best research approaches are (p.2).

In order to understand nonverbal communication it is necessary to operationalize it in such a way as to distinguish nonverbal communication from nonverbal behavior. Burgoon, Buller, and Woodall (1989) argue that "a helpful distinction in defining nonverbal communication . . . revolves around issues of intent, consciousness, and awareness" (p. 14).

Scott (1977) has proposed that those who study human communication must continue to wrestle with the difficult matter of distinguishing the degree of conscious intent associated with any given message. Some nonverbal scholars have chosen to ignore intent and argue from a receiver (decoder) orientation.

The receiver orientation claims that "all behavior is communicative and has a communicative function " (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 22) Birdwhistell (1955, 1970) was most interested in the study of face-to-face communication--specifically kinesics and body motion communication. He also argued from a receiver orientation and proposed that intention was not important in conceptualizing nonverbal communication. According to Kendon (1972, p. 442)

For Birdwhistell, communication is not something that we may or may not achieve, it is not something that we may or may not do of own choosing, for whenever we are in the presence of another, to the extent that there is an interrelation between our behavior and that of the other, to this extent, communication is going on.

In contrast to the receiver orientation, some scholars have adopted a source (encoder) orientation to the study of nonverbal communication. The source orientation suggests that only actions intended by a source qualify as communication (Ekman and Friesen, 1969).

Ekman and Friesen (1969) define communicative nonverbal behavior as "those acts which are clearly and consciously intended by the sender to transmit a specifiable message to the receiver" (p. 55). While their definition assumes intent, it does not assume sharedness. They explain that "communicative acts need not necessarily have a shared decoded meaning; there could be non-informative communicative acts where the sender intended to transmit a message but no one understands him" (p. 56).

Knapp, Wiemann, and Daly (1978), on the other hand, develop a more pluralistic approach by explaining that,

Some messages, for instance, are planned and sent with a high degree of conscious awareness; others seem more casually prepared; some messages are designed to look casual or unintentional; still others are more reflexive, habitual, or expressive responses; and some are "given off" rather than "given." (p. 273)

However, Goffman (1959), when discussing expressions "given off" is predominantly concerned with those behaviors which communicate "a wide range of action that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor, the expectation being that the action was performed for reasons other than the information conveyed in this way" (p. 2). With expressions "given off" Goffman (1959) specifically presumes unintentionality in nonverbal communication (p. 4). Goffman (1963) develops this receiver orientation conceptualization of communicative nonverbal behavior more fully in his discussions of unfocused and focused interactions. In his Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-To-Face Behavior, Goffman (1967) writes,

Every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him either in face-to-face or mediated contact with other participants. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line--that is, a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself. Regardless of whether a person intends to take a line, he will find that he has done so in effect. (p. 5)

This paper does not consider nonverbal communicative behavior from a source or receiver perspective, but rather, from a message orientation. Burgoon (1994) argues for such a "message orientation" which shifts focus from senders and receivers to the behaviors themselves. She defines nonverbal communication as,

Those behaviors other than words themselves that form a socially shared coding system; that is, they are typically sent with intent, typically interpreted as intentional, used with regularity among members of a speech community, and have consensually recognizable interpretations (p. 231).

Wiener, Devoe, Rubinow, and Geller (1972) proposed a similar approach when they explained that communication "at the very least involves socially shared behavior patterns" (p. 193). They distinguish between nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication by establishing intent as a major criterion and assert,

To the extent that the behaviors observed are exhibited by several members of a given group, that these behaviors seem to occur only in the context of a verbal exchange, and that they seem to be related to the ongoing verbalizations, such behaviors seem more likely to be possible instances of communication (p. 200).

Pearce and Kang (1987) suggest that all communication acts are "intentional" (p. 26). This paper echoes that sentiment and also the argument proposed by Wiener, et al. (1972) that establishes necessary conditions for behaviors to be considered communication. They argue that behaviors must,

be part of a code shared either by a cultural group or at the very least by members of this family . . . for behaviors to be considered a code . . . requires the possibility of (a) interchangeable use of code elements by different members of the family, and (b) occurrence of the same code elements in contexts other than the one reported (p. 198).

While Ekman and Friesen (1969) do not offer a specific definition of nonverbal communication, their classification /categorical scheme does provide a basic conceptual framework for explaining nonverbal behavior. Their categorical scheme is dependent on understanding the usage, origin, and coding of five unique categories of nonverbal behavior. Ekman and Friesen (1969) explain "if we are to understand fully any instance of a person's non-verbal [sic] behavior . . . we must discover how that behavior became part of the person's repertoire, the circumstances of its use, and the rules which explain how the behavior contains or conveys information" (p. 49). The three dimensions which comprise their categorical scheme for understanding nonverbal behavior are essentially origin, usage, and coding.

They explain "the term 'usage' refers to regular and consistent circumstances surrounding the occurrence of a nonverbal act" (p. 53). It includes any of the environmental circumstances (external conditions), the relationships of the nonverbal behavior to the verbal behavior (repeat, augment, illustrate, accent, contradict, substitute), awareness (internal feedback), intentionality, external feedback, and the type of information conveyed. While Ekman and Friesen imply that all behavior is communicative, they do make the distinction between idiosyncratic and shared information that is communicated by nonverbal behavior. Specifically, they argue that nonverbal behavior is communicative only if "the act has shared meaning . . . [and the] information associated with it is common across some specifiable set of individuals. Furthermore, they make the distinction between informative nonverbal behavior (which may or may not convey accurate or correct information and does not assume intent--shared decoded meaning), communicative nonverbal behavior (which is intended to transmit a message and does assume conscious intent), and interactive nonverbal behavior (which are intended to modify or influence the behavior of the receiver(s). They caution that "the distinction between idiosyncratic and shared, or among informative, communicative and interactive, refers to level or type of meaning, not to categories of behavior" (p. 58).

Origin, while not fully developed by Ekman and Friesen, relates to the "source of the action" (p. 59). They explain that the origin can be a reflex, acquired as experience common to all members of the [human] species, or learned as part of social interaction.

Coding, the relationship between the behavior and its meaning, is perhaps the most significant dimension in understanding nonverbal communication through Ekman and Friesen's categorical scheme for nonverbal behavior. They distinguish between three coding principles: arbitrary (extrinsic codes which bear no resemblance to what they signify -- hand wave for goodbye), iconic (extrinsic codes where the behavior looks like the significant -- running a finger under the throat), and intrinsic (visually related but does not resemble the significant --behaving as if one was shooting a gun; pointing, etc.) codes.

The difficulty with Ekman and Friesen's categorical scheme for nonverbal behavior is that it tries to account for all behavior. They determine categories, but these categories are not mutually exclusive. They state, "the categorical scheme . . . distinguishes nonverbal behavior in part in terms of the relative prevalence of informative, communicative and interactive meaning; the categories differ in the ratio of idiosyncratic to shared meaning but not all of the behavior in any category is exclusively one of these" (p. 58).

Ekman and Friesen attempt to associate behavior with meaning but they admit, "although we will speak of behavior as informative, or communicative or interactive, these terms cut across our five categories and refer to the information or type of meaning associated with a behavior, in any category, not a category of behavior itself" (p. 58). Other difficulties and problematic issues which Ekman and Friesen discuss openly are: the incompleteness of the categorical scheme; nonverbal behaviors which do not fit well into any of the categories they propose; categories which are not mutually exclusive; the lack of specific sequential interrelationships between an individual's behavior and the interaction of another person or persons; "distortion" resulting from treating nonverbal behavior as isolated units; and the lack of systematic evidence to support their categorical scheme (refer to pages 92-93).

In contrast, Burgoon (1994) identifies seven classes of nonverbal signals as codes--vehicles for communication: (a) kinesics, (b) vocalics or paralanguage, (c) physical appearance, (d) haptics, (e) proxemics, (f) chronemics and (g) artifacts (p. 232).

While most of Burgoon's (1994) classifications assume face-to-face interaction, chronemics or "the use of time as a message system, including such code elements as punctuality, waiting time, lead time, and amount of time spent with someone" can be incorporated to study human communication in a computer-mediated context (see Walther & Tidwell, 1994). Burgoon and Saine (1978, p. 99) define chronemics as "how we perceive, structure, and react to time and . . . the messages we interpret from such usage." Due to page limitations and the fact that the topic of chronemics is discussed in detail by Walther and Tidwell (1994), it will not be elaborated on here. The focus of the remainder of this paper will be on the application of nonverbal communicative behavior to determine its function and impact in a computer-mediated context.

To reiterate, communicative nonverbal behavior is defined in this paper from a message orientation as "intentional behavior with socially shared behavior patterns." When examining nonverbal communication from a CMC perspective it will be important to note how these "behaviors" are socially shared. Origin, usage, and coding will be key issues in determining meaning and sharedness.


Computer-mediated Communication as a Metatheoretical Framework

In order to understand nonverbal communication, it is first necessary to explain the context in which the communicative behavior will be examined. Rodriquez and Robina (1992) have justified the need for communication scholars to study computer-mediated communication when they argue, "Communication science studies the relationship between messages and people. More and more of these messages are being transmitted by computer networks; and more and more people are finding themselves caught up in the global network of networks" (p. 1).

Therefore, computer-mediated communication will provide the context by which nonverbal communication behavior will be studied. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has been defined as "synchronous or asynchronous electronic mail and computer conferencing, by which senders encode in text messages that are relayed from senders' computers to receivers (Walther, 1992, p. 52). CMC has also been described as "any communication patterns mediated through the computer" (Metz, 1992, p. 3). Walther and Burgoon (1992) argue that, "for many of us, CMC is no longer a novelty but a communication channel through which much of our business and social interaction takes place, and this transformation is expected to continue" (p. 51). They note, "CMC produces much different affective and relational patterns than do other types of communication, due to the reduction and types of cues available to participants" (p. 51).

Metz (1994) descriptively examines computer-mediated communication cultures and provides an ethnographic examination of the cultural characteristics of computer-mediated communication. Smeltzer (1992) provides an excellent analysis of the relationship of message structure and message intent in computer-mediated communication and notes, "although originally meant for the transfer of data between computers . . . [CMC] has evolved into several distinct formats to meet specific human-to-human communication needs" (p. 51)

Walther (1993) argues that "the lack of nonverbal cues in CMC has caused several resarchers to suggest that social cognitive processes may differ between CMC and face-to-face (FtF) interaction" (p. 381). Rice and Love (1987) explain "the one basic assumption about computer-mediated communications is that they transmit less of the natural richness and interaction of interpersonal communication than face-to-face interaction" (p. 87). The explain that to some researchers, "CMC, because of its lack of audio or video cues, will be perceived as impersonal and lacking in sociability and normative reinforcement, so there will be less socioemotional (SE) content exchanged. However, there is reason to believe that CMC allows users to participate more "equally." Rice and Love (1987) note, "the lack of nonverbal cues about physical appearance, authority, status, and turn-taking allows users to participate more equally and with more extreme affect on CMC systems than in many face-to-face interactions" (p. 89).

In a study conducted by Scharlott and Christ (1994) computer-mediated communication was found to "help users overcome relationship-initiation barriers rooted in sex role, shyness, and appearance inhibitions" (p. 1). They reported,

Computer-mediated communication can be beneficial in helping some individuals meet and form relationships, especially those who have had difficulty doing so because of sex role, shyness or appearance inhibitions. Others who might find the use of [CMC] advantageous include people who, because of physical handicaps, find it difficult to meet in face-to-face situations . . . who appreciate the anonymity and security CMC can provide. (p. 10)

If CMC is to considered void of nonverbal cues, how is it possible to study nonverbal communication from a computer-mediated communication context? Walther (1993) argues,

Theories and evidence regarding CMC and impression development are contradictory and confusing. Experimental/laboratory conferencing research generally found depersonalizing effects of CMC, while field studies found more interpersonally positive results (p. 385).

The final section of this paper examines how nonverbal communication can be studied in a context which has previously been determined to be void of nonverbal cues.


Nonverbal Communication in a CMC Context

Recall that this paper has chosen to define nonverbal communication from a message orientation rather than a source or receiver orientation as,

Those behaviors other than words themselves that form a socially shared coding system; that is, they are typically sent with intent, typically interpreted as intentional, used with regularity among members of a speech community, and have consensually recognizable interpretations (Burgoon, 1994, p. 231).

However, because CMC is limited to a text-only environment, it is necessary to modify Burgoon's (1994) definition to include verbal symbols as functions of nonverbal communication.

Knapp and Hall (1992) have explained that because "nonverbal events and behaviors can be interpreted through verbal symbols . . . we might more appropriately think of behaviors as existing on a continuum with some behaviors overlapping two continua" (p. 37). Scheflen (1968) provides a basic assumption about how verbal symbols would function within a "culture" as nonverbal communication when he explains, "behavior appears in standard units in any culture because the members learn to perform so as to shape their behavior into these molds so that it is mutually recognizable and predictable" (p. 45). Wiener, et al. (1972) further explains that, in order to be considered part of a code, the behavior must shared by a cultural group and . . . requires the possibility of (a) interchangeable use of code elements by different members of the family, and (b) occurrence of the same code elements in contexts other than the one reported (p. 198). Walther and Tidwell (1994) discuss social cues in CMC and report,

Researchers have noted that certain textual behaviors become commonly-shared codes to accomplish the metacommunicative business in CMC that nonverbal behaviors typically perform in FtF interaction (p. 4).

For example, Sanderson (1994) and others have categorized numerous typographic sideways symbols--often referred to as "emoticons," "smileys," or "relational icons" (e.g. happy 8-) or sad faces :-( ). "Lexical surrogates" are described by Carey (1980) for nonverbal behaviors which are employed to indicate mood states. These include typing out what might otherwise by nonverbal vocalizations such as "hmmmmm" or "oooohhh," the use of intentional misspellings, and hyperbolic repeated punctuation marks. Allen (1988) discusses the use of capitalized letters to connote shouting in electronic bulletin boards. Further, CMC participants can type out narrative descriptions of nonverbal behaviors (see Appendix for sample CMC conversation). These CMC devices, then, substitute verbal symbols for missing nonverbal behaviors in the text-only CMC environment. In so much that these verbal symbols function as nonverbal communication, a detailed investigation of the origin, usage, and coding of specific verbal symbols in particular CMC cultures would provide an insightful description of the function and impact of these verbal symbols to serve as nonverbal communication in a CMC context.

This paper has described the theoretical and empirical bases of nonverbal communication which address the four defining issues: (a) intent and awareness, (b) issues of meaning, (c) sharedness, and (d) codification which distinguish nonverbal communication from nonverbal behavior, examined computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a metatheoretical framework for understanding a specific conceptualization (message orientation) of nonverbal communication, and illustrated the process by which nonverbal communication can been studied in a computer-mediated communication context.


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APPENDIX
 
Sample CMC Conversation
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Christine

then prehaps you will run into me there..I often visit my friends
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Greyhawk

*looks at John*

*his eyes begin to flash white*

Shawn>lets have some fun...shall we?
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Wayne

Good night everybody!!! ( it is 1245 here in the UK!!))
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Angel Child

*waves to Smarmy*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:37 from Teef

STARR>*Louisa gets back up. Leans t

Leans to one side. Shakes her head*

STARR, quit beating up on me.

*Whines*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from John Wa Smith

*Grabd shawn by the neck, and rips it out*

*RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRIP!*
 
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Iowa Rocker

*waves hello to everyone except Wayne, whom he waves bye to*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Greyhawk

*his eyes go up in surprise*

you visit often?
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:38 from Shawn

Sure GreyHawk!!!!

*Suddenly Shawn begins to get extremely hairy and a howl is heard over the din of battle*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Blackened

*leans back and plays his bass*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Angel Child

*Laughs and ponders Pond scum ponderings pondering*

anyone drunk??
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Christine

yes, I have many friends in many places...why wouldn't I visit?
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Greyhawk

*shawn is instantly healed*

John>I wouldent if I were you....

*his eyes seem to glitter like stars*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Ilids

*thwaps whoever said Fuck you to AC*

*throws sign at blackened*

DORK.
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from STARR

*waves at Shawn, Joh Wa Smith, etc.

[Babble> msg #4921282 (133 remaining)] Read cmd -> Next
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Weaser

*enters back in. was gone to hell knows where. sits in corner*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from John Wa Smith

*John seems to respond to the beast*

*Instantly, he morphs into geren dragon form*

*SNARL*
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:40 from Smarmy

weaser>hows the corner/

[

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Pondrepof

Shawn> This place needs some excitement...

What shall we do??

**juggles clogs from the magical "Tree of Wooden Clogs"**
 

Oct 16, 1994 18:39 from Angel Child

*Ponders Blackened Studly Bass playing!*

Ponders if he is playing Nirvana - prolly thats as talented material as he casn play*

*teleports in Guitar and starst playing Dream Theater*