Interchangeability of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues – Walther

Walther, J. B., Loh, T., & Granka, L. (2005). Let me count the ways – The interchange of verbal and nonverbal cues in computer-mediated and face-to-face affinity. [Article]. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 24(1), 36-65.

That CMC does not offer nonverbal cues in communication has been discussed by most early research on online communication and CMC. I addressed this point in my last three posts. While published almost ten years later than the last Walther article I reviewed, even in this article I am now reviewing, he still considers CMC refer to text-based communication, that which does not include non-verbal cues. I find that in our current stage of multimedia and multimodal online communication, any definition of CMC should really include online synchronous audio communication and also audio-video communication conducted online through either synchronous or asynchronous means. This point is highly relevant, since this article takes this lack of social cues as a given of CMC and considers how social interaction meaning is affected by this lack and whether users make up for it by other means.

The two views on this topic are, essentially:

  • The absence of non-verbal cues denies participants important information about their conversant(s), such as emotions, characteristics, and attitudes, which leads to less effective, sociable, and understandable communication.
  • People adapt to a non-verbal communication medium by filling the messages with or by interpreting from certain stylistic and contextual cues, information about the conversant, thus allowing normal relational communication (in which we understand a conversant’s emotion, characteristic, and attitude) to occur. (35).

Social Information Processing (SIP) theory measures interaction by time and rate of messages exchanges and argues that CMC is no less personal than FtF communication if participants have sufficient time for message exchange and relationship development. It also supports the latter perspective noted above:

“[C]ommunicators deploy whatever cue systems they have at their disposal when motivated to form impressions and develop relationships. When most nonverbal cues are unavailable, as is the case in text-based CMC, users adapt their language, style, and other cues to such purposes.” (37).

“Despite acknowledgement that nonverbal and verbal systems coexist and complement each other, the widespread assumption that nonverbal behavior is primary in the communication of emotion and interpersonal affect seems to persist” (38).

Such “widespread assumption” is found in social presence theory, which maintains that “the reduction of nonverbal cues available in various forms of telecommunication led to reductions in the capacity to transmit and receive interpersonal impressions and warmth” (38). The cues-filtered-out approach also supports the idea that relational information is obtained from “nonverbal cues, such as voice quality and vocal inflections, physical appearance, bodily movements, and facial expressions, which are absent in CMC” (38).

Much research of the last decade continued the idea that nonverbal cues were lacking in CMC and it was therefore unlikely to match the abilities of FtF communication in the effectiveness of communicating interpersonal information. Even when scholars might acknowledge a hyperpersonal aspect to CMC, they would still note some downfall of CMC, such as CMC creating less immediacy and involvement than FtF (see Burgoon et al. 2002).

Walther states that this idea of immediacy is an area where exists the argument that verbal and nonverbal expressions of affinity can be interchangeable. “Conceptually, immediacy is a composite of involvement, affection, and warmth, which is conceived as reflecting the emotional attitude of one individual toward another person” (41).

  • Nonverbal immediacy cues include: proximity, smiling, eye contact, body orientation, and postural lean.
  • Verbal immediacy cues include: spatiotemporality, indicative demonstratives, denotative specificity, selective emphasis, and agent –action-object relationships.

Walther et al. performed research to determine whether CMC users really do employ verbal communication behaviors to achieve a comparable level of relational communication to that achieved by FtF communication (using both verbal and non-verbal cues) and to explore the sort of cues CMC and FtF communicators used to express interpersonal affinity (liking) for a conversant. This research revealed that:

  • The amount of subjectively experienced affinity did not differ due to the communication channel in any substantial way.
  • Very little motivation or identity issues need be salient for communicators to adapt their relational behaviors effectively across channels.
  • Many nonverbal behaviors previously associated with immediacy (e.g., smiling, facial orientation, and gaze) were reflected in the analysis of FTF interaction. (57).

Finally, the authors note that the success of any medium to communicate certain information and for users to be successful in the vein is largely about the participants’ motivation to adapt:

Insofar as this aspect of social interaction is concerned, a chat system or an e-mail message may be as good as a meeting or a videophone, or anything else as yet to be developed, when communicators are even minimally motivated to make them so through the adaptation of affective intentions into text-based cues” (58).

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