In "Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World" and the related publications "Understanding 'Honest Signals' in Business" and "Social Dynamics: Signals and Behavior", Alex Petland puts forth the idea that non-semantic communication (communication we do without explicitly representing thoughts using words/drawings, such as our gestures or aspects of our voice) falls into the following four types.

Types of Non-Semantic Communication

1. Consistency/Variance/Stress/Emphasis

Jerky, uneven motions indicate many different thoughts indicating openness to influence. Consistent emphasis and timing indicates mental focus.

2. Mimicry/Mirroring/Imitation

How much the social patterns of each participant match. Correlates with trust. Verbally this is measured by sub-second utterances ("Uh-huh") and exchanges built on these utterances ("OK?", "OK!", "Done?", "Yup.").

3. Engagement/Influence

The amount one forces or cedes their social patterns to another. Could also be considered as who's driving the conversation.

4. Activity level

Describes how much energy in general is being expended in the interaction. Verbally, this can be considered by the ratio of silence to exclamations.

He then applies these four concepts to analyse various scenarios (speed dating, negotiation) and demonstrates their predictive power.


Do other theories or frameworks exist with an alternative interpretation of non-semantic communication while still having the same predictive power?


1 Answer 1


A related theory of latent dimensions of emotional expression is Affect Control Theory (ACT), which can be broken into four separate dimensions in "The World of Emotions Is Not Two-Dimensional" by Fontaine et al. Three of these dimensions map easily onto Honest Signals. This is shown in the table below:

comparison table

The mismatching dimensions of ACT and Honest Signals are Valence/Pleasantness and Mimicry. This makes sense since ACT is more focused on the expression and perception of emotions, whereas Honest Signals is more about the co-operation of two individuals. In other words, when two people are interacting, it's more important if one person is responding to that other person's emotions than what that emotion is. This is interestingly confirmed in Non-Violent Communication, which establishes that mirroring an emotion must be done before the root cause of that emotion can be addressed.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.