The Lack of Non-Verbal Communication in a Digital World


Like many, I have a love/hate affair with our digital world. Social media is certainly an easy way to touch base with people and share smiley photos of happy moments, yet for me, it has been a feeding ground communication fiascoes of epic proportions as of late. This particularly applies to Facebook, as it is a prime space for communication to be misunderstood simply because we don’t have the luxury of seeing non-verbal communication cues as we read comments and posts.

To complicate matters, we are often sharing and “talking” through social media across regional and international borders, upping the misunderstanding and the “make room for assumption” quotient.


Yet, the world is digital and this is how we communicate in the 21st century. People type their thoughts in abbreviated form via text and Twitter, write brief commentary and hit via Facebook, slapping the occasion Emojis after to replace the paralinguistics, physicality and facial expressions lacking in the digital sphere.

As an interculturalist, I struggle with the social media world.  It simply lacks too much of the non-verbal cues for me.




This begs the question – what percent of communication IS non-verbal anyway? News outlets commonly quote 93%, but this piece debunks that myth. According to cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, non-verbals account for approximately 65% of communication.  No matter the specific number, realizing that non-verbals are the majority of communication (see this piece for more info), we quickly realize that much of the ability to understands social media is missing when we are operating without the benefit of those little facial adjustments, stance, tone of voice, etc.

It would be fascinating if there were an app to suss out possible interpretations of social media communication across cultures. (Perhaps there is an I am just operating in the dark ages?)

For example, a friend wrote this with a photo accompanying it on her Facebook page:

“The 10 commandments at the county courthouse. Welcome to Florida.”

Imagine for a moment that you are not American or aren’t familiar with the politics of the US South.  A magic app could inform you that this post could mean:

1) I am so happy to see Biblical language in front of this court house.  Florida is a great place.


2) Seriously? What is wrong with Florida not “separating” church and state in a place as sacred as a legal courthouse?

(In this case, knowing my friend well, it was option #2).

Realisticallly, I’m confident that any app would misinterpret this too – just as language translation tools online often do.  Communication is simply just too complex to be whittled down to a logarithm.

I’d love to hear your comments below on social media snafus and how the lack of non-verbals and/or addition of Emojis contribute to them. How does social media/email/texting get more complicated because of the lack of non-verbals?  Or perhaps there are benefits to this that I’m missing besides the obvious expansion of dialogue – understood or otherwise?


About the Author:  Missy Gluckmann is the founder of Melibee Global and Better Abroad. Her most cherished title is Hudson’s mommy! You can read more about her here.