Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

by | NYC/Brisbane, USA/Australia

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

tags: australasia, making sense, semiotics


I often explain, for me, the most effective way to fully understand all the nonverbal communication elements present during a situation is through semiotics, specifically social semiotic analysis.  I describe the social semiotic approach to nonverbal communication as pulling back the veil of ambiguity of nonverbal communication cues and elements by making what is implicit explicit- connecting the micro cues (specific gestures and movements)  with macro cues (rapport, empathy, professionalism, etc.)
This type of analysis, as well as embracing Morris’s model (3 branches of semiotics: semantics, syntactics, & pragmatics) allows all the elements to be identified individually, collectively along with the spoken words, and what they mean can help each of us become more effective communicators regardless of what we do for a living.  Also, in my case, it allows me to be a more effective researcher.
Social semiotics explores resources (“signs” in most versions of semiotics), or action and artifacts we use to communicate (van Leeuwen, 2005),  to identify them as well as explore how they are used.  It is the concern of  “how” that is unique to social semiotics and what I argue is most effective for exploring the role of nonverbal communication.
Yuri Lotman describes all the resources, and for the purpose of this article the resources are all the potential nonverbal elements, as being in a semiosphere- all the space surrounding us.
One of the most poignant statements, and arguments for studying and understanding semiotics, and is given even more importance discerning it through a nonverbal communication lens, is from Chandler inSemiotics: The Basics (2010, p.225):
"There is no escape from signs. Those who cannot understand them and the systems of which they are a part are in the greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can.  In short, semiotics cannot be left to semioticians."
Nonverbal elements are present regardless if you know it or not.  In order to understand these elements, they need to be identified and a system needs to be created to understand there meaning.
Social semiotics emphasizes the importance of context and when viewing this from a nonverbal communication perspective, identifying the various cues and elements requires the context to have a focal point.
Returning to Morris’s model, proper identification of all the elements exists through using his three branches: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.
The image below lists the stages I use during nonverbal communication research (specifically gestures are shown below) to assist me.
Semantics. The first step is to identify all the nonverbal elements.  As previously mentioned [here], there can be many elements and it can easily overwhelm someone trying to identify them.  This can be the case for a research and even more so for the casual interested person.
To assist in this process, I created the METTA acronym to assist me (and you!) to ensure each element is accounted for.  METTA represents each of the nonverbal elements: Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance (read more on METTA here).
Syntactics.  From the nonverbal communication and social semiotic perspective, after identifying each element, the next step is exploring the cluster of elements being used together and their arrangement.  For example, while listening to a certain comment, the person let’s out a “huff” noise, leans away from the table, reclines into his chair and starts to fidget in with his mobile phone.  After asking him if everything is okay, he replies timidly, “fine.”
Pragmatics:  This stage cannot be completed without the other two.  This stage allows meaning to be established with each of the elements based on clusters and context.  Continuing with the example above, each of the elements, while being viewed collectively tells me that the person is not “fine” and that it is worth further exploring and asking the person how they are doing.
Something of importance to note is although it is listed above as steps, it is not a strict chronological order of stages but rather an interconnected diachronic process where each stage is being conducted with the other stages in mind and happening simultaneously.
This process of using a social semiotic analysis can be used to assist researchers (I am doing as part of my PhD) as well as professionals and anyone interested in being aware of nonverbal communication as well as being more effective at using nonverbal communication and understanding other’s use of nonverbal communication.
Examples of how you can apply this to your life is considering and asking yourself:
1.  What is the best place to hold a meeting or a place to meet someone;
2.  Are your actions, or theirs, open to discussion or closed-off and defiant;
3.  Does your appearance emit professionalism (make sure your socks match!); &
4.  What kind of hand shake do you use- do you shake everyone’s hand;
As Chandler mentions, an admission of any semiotician is acknowledging a semiotic analysis is just one approach of many.  For me, exploring nonverbal communication from a social semiotic approach has helped me with my research as well as during many trainings and workshops I have conducted in various countries.
I invite you to try (and let me know how it goes) as the best way to learning anything is to try it out, reflect on it, and share it with others.
 © Jeff Thompson 2011
This articles is part of a series for explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.
Part I: Introduction to “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication
Part II: Semiotic Analysis of Nonverbal Communication
Part III: METTA- How To Be Aware Of The Nonverbal Elements (December, 2011)
Part IV: The 3 C’s Of Nonverbal Communication (January, 2012)
Part V: Applying Semiotic Analysis & Nonverbal Communication (February, 2012)

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