Does this scenario seem familiar? You're talking to a friend about an upcoming social event and you don't want to tell him you're skipping it. You tell him how great it's going to be and that you'll definitely be there. At the end of your conversation, your friend says, "So you aren't going to be there, are you?" You did your best to convey interest. You even explicitly said the words, yet your friend saw right through you.
What happened here is a great example of nonverbal communication, or metacommunication. You probably didn't realize it, but while you were talking, it's likely your eye contact, body language and perhaps even the tone and inflection in your voice changed. All of these nonverbal clues told your friend to question the words you were saying.
This is an example of how nonverbal cues can give away a fib and work against you. But there are also ways the same nonverbal "language" can be an effective communication tool and work in your favor. Over the years, linguists, sociologists and other researchers have conducted a great deal of research on nonverbal communication. Many of these studies indicate that the actual words we use play a very small role in how we communicate. What really gets a message across are facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, voice and eye contact. Even touch and the amount of personal space you allow or insist upon play a part in how you communicate with someone.
To consider how effective metacommunication can be, let's look at a few scenarios. Consider the human face. Expressions like scowls, smiles, looks of shock, surprise and rage are almost completely cross-cultural. You can be dropped in most any part of the world without the benefit of knowing the language and communicate basic thoughts and feelings through facial expressions and hand gestures. Think about how important tone and inflection are in a conversation. You can convey several different meanings for the same sentence by merely emphasizing different words. Sarcasm is a great example of using inflection as a nonverbal cue.
Even silence is a form of metacommunication. Remaining silent can be an effective way to get someone to reveal something. A constant, intense stare can be more intimidating than angry words. Maintaining good eye contact says more about your interest in a conversation than insisting (with words) that you're listening. A firm handshake was once the measure of a man in some circles, and a gentle touch can be much more comforting to someone than a sincere statement of empathy.
These are just a few examples of nonverbal cues humans use every day to effectively communicate something. An infinite amount of nonverbal nuances impact how what we say is perceived. In some cases, perhaps we don't need words at all.