The Difference Between Verbal & Nonverbal Communication

African American man sitting on porch

John Lund/Marc Romanelli/Blend Images/Getty Images

Humans communicate in a variety of ways, both verbally and non-verbally. Primates and other animals have been communicating without the use of language since long before humans invented verbal communication. Some scientists believe that even today, most communication between humans is non-verbal. Both types of communication differ significantly between genders and across cultures.


Communication is the use of messages to produce meaning within and across a variety of contexts, cultures, methods and media, according to the Association for Communication Administration. It is a learned activity--you must learn to speak your native language, operate a cell phone or even use gestures that are common in your culture. You must also learn to receive and interpret messages from others.

Verbal vs. Nonverbal Communication

Verbal communication is best suited to convey specific information, and is better suited to communication through technology over long distances. Nonverbal communication is more immediate than verbal communication, but its meaning is typically more ambiguous, notwithstanding the fact that certain forms of nonverbal communication, such as the use of the eyes, can convey emotions more effectively than words can. Some technological means of communication, such as film, can effectively convey many forms of nonverbal communication.

Verbal Gender and Cultural Differences

When communicating verbally, men tend to seek and offer solutions, while women tend to focus on empathy, according to John Gray, author of the best-seller "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." This is a reflection of the fact that men ore more goal-oriented while women are more relationship-oriented, according to Gray. Gender communication differences extend to non-verbal communication as well. People from different cultures also differ in how they express themselves, even when the literal meanings of words are translated into the native language of the listener. For example, in some cultures "yes" can mean "maybe," while in other cultures the word "yes" can be considered a binding commitment, reports Marcelle E. DuPraw of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution, and diversity awareness consultant Marya Axner.

Non-Verbal Gender and Cultural Differences

Women tend to be better at interpreting non-verbal messages than men, according to the website Body Language Expert. Men are also less adept at sending subtle non-verbal messages. Cultural differences in non-verbal communication can create misunderstandings--for example, among North Americans, nodding the head means "yes," while among Japanese, it means merely "I'm listening" according to Wang De-hua and Li Hui of the Ningbo Institute of Technology.

Mixed Messages

Sometimes verbal and non-verbal messages are inconsistent with or even contradictory to each other. Women tend to be better than men at detecting such inconsistencies, according to Body Language Expert. When this occurs, the receiver must choose between trusting the verbal message or the non-verbal message.