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Nonverbal Communication as an Unclear Symbol of Gender and Identity

lgleysteen's picture


Most of the discourse about human communication is centered on the importance of the spoken word.  Although verbal communication tells us a lot about our society, body language can portray our true intentions. The individual body is always constrained by the social body because every action the individual does has been imprinted in their minds by culture. People are raised and socialized to interpret each other’s bodies as a series of symbols.  Almost every movement an individual does, whether it is crying, laughing, winking, smiling, or shrugging their shoulders is socially constructed.  Without following the example of other people, these movements would have no social significance.  The social significance of types of body languages in not a cultural universal and it is not portrayed and understood by all people.  One given signal cannot be interpreted the same way across cultures.  What social conditions occur when certain symbols are assumed to be universal, even though they cannot be universally expressed?

Non-verbal communication in some ways is not as simple as verbal communication because there is no dictionary for what actions mean.  Similar to spoken communication, it is natural to make assumptions about how a certain person is going to move their body.  Society makes strong assumptions of what the body language of men and women should be.  For Instance, it would be appropriate and expected for a women to keep her arms and legs closer to her body  as she walks, while simultaneously swaying her hips and placing her feet lightly on the ground every time she takes a step.  A man would be expected walk with his arms and legs farther from his body, he is more likely to bring his arms up and down while he walks as well as put more weight into every step.  An example of this can be seen at the Bio motion Lab of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario website that shows how human body language has been mapped.  The bio motion lab has categories of different types of walking styles.  There is happy and sad, heavy and light, nervous and relaxed, and male and female.

It makes sense for there to be opposites such as happy and sad, and relaxed and nervous but how can the body language of gender be measured so casually.  The body languages portrayed for male and female only show the absolute norm of how men and women should walk.  When was a dictionary created that said that men and women are supposed to walk a specific way?  If a man or a woman switched the expected male and female body languages, they would be more likely to be stared at and possibly have their sexual orientation questioned.  Visual symbols are usually the first things that people use to assign someone a gender.  Body language is one of the categories in which people are supposed to fit a normative behavior.  From birth, young girls are taught to walk like their mothers while young boys are supposed to walk like their fathers.  Body language is not just linked to how people express their gender but also how they portray their sexual identity.   

Many human impulses are portrayed through body language, especially sexual attraction.  Body language often silently tells society that an individual does not completely identify with the body that they were born into and that they do not feel like abiding the rules in which society has told them to move their body.  People are not primarily attracted to the way a person is dressed or what they look like, but also the way they move.  The norm for attractive behavior is to be at ease and confident instead of awkward and nervous.  Even the people who say that they are mostly attracted to people for their personalities, most likely have judged people for the way they portray their meanings through body language.  Body language is an important tool in courting a person that another individual is attracted to.  Within the context of flirtation, body language can be a stronger tool than verbal communication because it is unbinding, and can be changed very quickly.  A few ways of portraying attraction through body language includes, holding eye contact a bit longer than what would be considered normal for regular conversation, or “accidently” touching the other persons hand or shoulder. These expectations for what flirtation should be bring many individuals together. 

There are many people who cannot convey these same emotions or forms of flirtation through their body language. The expectation of what body language should be makes it very difficult for people who are different to feel normal.  For Instance, when so much emphasis is placed on the importance of body language in courting another individual, it makes it very difficult for people with disabilities to feel sexually attractive. Eli Clare discusses in his book how he feels that people with disabilities are desexualized in society.  One part of the de-sexualization can be attributed to body language.  If someone is in a wheel chair they cannot move in a way that would not only portray their gender but also their sexual intentions.  They cannot, sway their hips or walk in a way that makes them feel like they are portraying their gender.  Certain individuals with mental disabilities have difficulty with eye contact as well as the ability to move in a way that would be considered appropriate for every situation.  Many able-bodied people interpret the world in such a way that it would be hard to know if a disabled person was flirting with them because a large part of the flirtation process is removed.  If only verbal communication is used in flirtation, the person may come off as too blatant, awkward, or overly confident.  If an individual has a disability that makes it difficult for them to move, their flirtatious actions can be misinterpreted and they run the risk of becoming completely desexualized by the other person.  This does not happen every time a disabled person flirts with an able-bodied person but it happens often enough to contribute to a large number of people who feel desexualized.

Body language controls so many expectations that people have of other people’s intentions and emotions even though it is not a universal language.  Not all nonverbal gestures can be communicated and understood universally.  People usually do not question what they see.  Initial perceptions are not always analyzed deeply enough for people to understand that what they perceive is different than what they are actually seeing or hearing.  People cannot be expected to follow a norm.  There is no actual norm or guidelines for appropriate behavior but people still use what they think they are seeing or hearing to judge other people’s intentions.  The different types of body language prove that we cannot always trust our initial perceptions and that we always have to think before we make assumptions.



Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd Press, 1999. Print.

Grammer, Karl. "Strangers Meet: Laughter and Nonverbal Signs of Interest in Opposite-sex Encounters." Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. Springer Netherlands. Web. 2 Oct. 2011. <>.

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.


Daniel Kelvin Huff's picture

NonVerbal communication

Thank you for the information nonverbal communication is an ancient behavior that has contributed towards understanding what an individual is actually expressing. I truly believe people take for granted initially of his or her nonverbal gesturing, eyebrow movement and starring/star gazing just for a split second. Just to actually realized what they had just done, example, did I just flirt with her? I hope he didn't realize or notice me running my fingers through my hair.

Kaye's picture

flirting with attraction

I’m delighted that you have engaged the topic of body language as it relates to sexual attraction and as it intra-acts with disabilities.  As you highlight, an inability to perform subtle physical movements may lead a person to be misperceived as sexual.  (I also wonder whether it’s also possible that someone with a disability might be misperceived as being hyper-sexualized.  What about someone who stares protractedly?   Might they be seen as leering or ogling and be misperceived as being hyper-sexualized?)

I hope you will consider broadening your claim that “Almost every movement an individual does, whether it is crying, laughing, winking, smiling, or shrugging their shoulders is socially constructed” and acknowledge that biological determinants also influence body language.  I agree that social contexts are important, but please don’t ignore the hormonal fluxes and neural-muscular reflexes that trigger the flow of tears, vocalizations, facial expressions, and bodily movements.  To resist these physiological expressions requires attentive control.  To reinforce the cultural belief that men are strong and tough, boys need to be repeatedly reminded throughout childhood that “boys don’t cry.”  Gendered differences in the way people walk also can have anatomical constraints—females have evolved different pelvic structures to accommodate pregnancy and birthing, and these skeletal differences could lead to different ways of walking.  However, in the case of standing and walking, wouldn’t the more “natural” stance for women be to have their legs further apart and not crossed?  Is training girls to keep their knees together when they sit a milder variation of foot-binding?  Your posting has definitely helped “get me thinking” along new lines!

In the context of our multi-media class, I was also inspired by your statement that there is “no dictionary for what actions mean” to imagine that someone with more digital graphics savvy than I might be able to construct a visual-media dictionary of gendered movements.  It would be fascinating to look at these cross-culturally and to see if an example of body language that is interpreted as “male” in one culture has the same gender value in another.  Perhaps as an anthropologist, you may know of such studies?

I must admit that I was initially puzzled by your conclusion:  “People cannot be expected to follow a norm.”   Much of what you presented is how we DO expect people to follow norms and that these norms of gender and sexual attraction may be difficult for people with disabilities to perform.  Did you intend to make a moral claim here, e.g., “We should not expect people to follow a norm”?  This could be a logical claim if, as you state, “There is no actual norm or guidelines for appropriate behavior” and that when “people … use what they think they are seeing or hearing to judge other people’s intentions” they are more likely to misjudge. 

Thank you for including references at the end of your paper.  In your next paper, please include in-text citations to help your readers identify which claims are substantiated by other sources and which are your own observations.