Biased Language

Learning Outcomes

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After reading this chapter, you should be able to

ሁ Define verbal communication and understand the history and functions of language.
ሁ Define nonverbal communication and discuss its functions.
ሁ Describe the various types of nonverbal communication that can be used in interpersonal

ሁ Explain how verbal and nonverbal communication have evolved in the digital age.
ሁ Use strategies to strengthen verbal and nonverbal communication competence.

4Verbal and Nonverbal Communication: Making Every
Word and Gesture Matter

Jose Luis Pelaez/Iconica/Getty Images

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Janelle has been dealing with acne for years, but she is becoming increasingly frustrated
about being an adult who still struggles with pimples. It is her first visit with Dr. Abraham, a
dermatologist, and she is nervous as she waits in the exam room. When Dr. Abraham enters
about 20 minutes later, he reads Janelle’s file. He does not make eye contact with her or shake
her hand, though he does offer a perfunctory, “Hello, how are you? I’m Dr. Abraham.” Janelle
is immediately put off by Dr. Abraham’s indifferent introduction. He asks her a few brief ques-
tions, writes down her answers, and performs a quick examination of her skin. In a wavering
voice, Janelle responds to Dr. Abraham’s questions but keeps her eyes fixed on the floor. After
about five minutes, Dr. Abraham suggests she use two prescriptions, which she can collect
from the nurse at the front desk, and return in five weeks for a follow-up appointment. Almost
as an afterthought, he asks Janelle if she has any questions. Janelle whispers, “No, thank you,”
and is barely able to hold back her tears of disappointment.

Have you ever had an awkward or frustrating encounter such as this? As you learned earlier
in this text, whenever people communicate, they attempt to create shared meaning by encod-
ing messages in symbols and by decoding or interpreting the symbols used by others. These
symbols may be verbal, consisting of words in oral or written forms such as Dr. Abraham’s
greeting and Janelle’s answers to his questions. Symbols can also be nonverbal messages such
as the tone or volume of your voice, your facial expressions, touching others, use of personal
space or distance, and body movement and gestures. Janelle’s soft and wavering voice, Dr.
Abraham’s lack of eye contact, and even the time Janelle spends waiting for the doctor are
examples of nonverbal communication.

When you communicate with others, your attention is not only focused on the words that are
said but also on the characteristics of the other communicator’s voice, their body language
and physical distance from you, and even the environment in which the interaction is occur-
ring. In the example above, Dr. Abraham uses appropriate verbal communication when he
greets his patient, examines and diagnoses her condition, asks questions, and provides her
with a treatment. But his nonverbal communication makes the visit unpleasant for Janelle; his
lack of “bedside manner” changes the overall meaning of the medical encounter for Janelle,
making her feel invisible in the eyes of Dr. Abraham. This, in turn, impacted the information
that she shared with him and the kind of treatment she received.

You process others’ nonverbal messages at the same time that you process their verbal mes-
sages, and you make judgments about others based on a combination of both. Others simul-
taneously make these same judgments of you. Nonverbal messages are usually more believ-
able and more reliable than verbal messages. Verbal communication, or language, is crucial
in forming and maintaining social relationships, and being competent in your verbal com-
munication is essential to your personal and professional success. But an understanding of
nonverbal communication is also essential given the sheer number of nonverbal messages.
In fact, findings from a variety of research studies suggest that 60–65% of meaning in social
interactions is derived from nonverbal messages (Burgoon, 1994).

To account for the importance of both of these types of messages, Chapter 4 examines verbal
symbols and nonverbal messages as they are used in interpersonal communication contexts.

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

We combine information about verbal and nonverbal communication into a single chapter
to understand how each are important individually as well as to emphasize how much we
rely on both types of messages in our interpersonal communication. We begin by exploring
verbal communication with a brief history of language acquisition and the English language
in the United States. Next, we consider the ways that nonverbal communication functions
in our interactions and discuss different types of nonverbal communication messages. We
also explore verbal and nonverbal elements of communication, including how both operate in
online settings, and we identify ways in which we can improve both our verbal and nonverbal
communication competence.

4.1 Verbal Communication
As we discussed in Chapter 1, language is a system of human communication that uses a
particular form of spoken or written words or other symbols. Language is the primary code
humans use to communicate. Language is so vital to who we are as humans that it shapes
how we think and how we view the world around us. In essence, we need language as a filter
through which to cognitively process and perceive our inner and outer worlds. (We will return
more to these ideas when we discuss culture and language later in this chapter.) Language is
also crucial in forming and maintaining social relationships and is essential to personal and
professional success. You may consider speech natural and not always pay close attention to
the words you use. However, you make language choices whenever you speak, although you
may not always do so consciously. You become a more competent communicator when you
become a more conscientious creator of messages. You can do this by making sure that your
language is appropriate for the situation, the other person to whom you are speaking, and the
purpose of the communication.

Many languages, including English, have formal and informal language. Formal language is
more careful and more mannered than everyday speech. It is used to express serious thought,
which is generally clear, accurate, and not overly emotional. It avoids colloquialisms, slang,
and biased language. Formal language is the standard speech of the academic world and the
appropriate language in most business and professional settings, with clients or customers,
in professional writing, and in public speaking situations. There are some formal systems of
language that are used in academic settings, such as MLA or APA style. These set norms of
writing carefully credit sources and structure formal writing.

In contrast, informal language describes a wide range of common and nonstandard Eng-
lish, including jargon, colloquialisms, idioms, and slang. Informal language is appropriate in
casual conversation with peers or in special circumstances. For example, would you use the
words “woke,” “lit,” or even “huge” in a formal essay assigned for one of your college courses?
Hopefully not, as informal language is usually not appropriate in written communication or in
professional and academic settings. Breaking these sorts of “rules,” which are usually unspo-
ken, could also run the risk of harming how others view you and damage your “face,” or their
impression of you. (Read the Web Field Trip feature for a quick look at the history of the Eng-
lish language and its evolution.)

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

The History of Language
Researchers agree that one characteristic sets humans apart from their animal cousins: com-
munication. Language—in both spoken and written form—is unique to human beings and
is considered by some to be the most exceptional behavior that humans can enact. Although
there is no specific date that we can pinpoint as to when language first emerged, we can esti-
mate that our ancestors have been verbally communicating for approximately a million years.
In fact, physiologically, human beings are the only animals who are capable of producing spo-
ken language. When humans started walking on two legs instead of four, the descent of the
larynx—the organ that forms part of the air passage to the lungs and that contains our vocal
chords—allowed the tongue to move in a way that could produce a variety of sounds, which
were then used as a basis for verbal communication. The concurrency of these physiological
developments means that the formation and growth of language likely occurred during the
origin of modern human behavior.

Scholars do not uniformly agree on how to classify languages, and it is almost impossible to
conduct a global census of all language speakers, so the number of estimated languages and
number of speakers of each language around the world varies from source to source.

Although no common global language exists, political, economic, and technological changes
have dramatically increased the use of English over the past few decades (Campbell-Laird,
2004). Its use predominates in business, science and technology, and international maritime
and aviation transactions. More than half of the world’s books and three-quarters of interna-
tional mail are written in English, and English sites dominate the Internet (Tonkin & Reagan,
2003). Like other languages, English is always growing and evolving. Old words continually
gain new dictionary definitions, and new words are constantly being added to the vernacu-
lar—that is, the variety of language used by speakers in informal situations—through the
creation of slang terms and newly coined words such as hangry and bingeable, which were
recently added to Merriam Webster’s dictionary (“We Put a Bunch of New Words in the Dic-
tionary,” 2018).

The U.S. Constitution does not designate an official language; however, the widespread use
of English has made it the recognized language, or de facto language, of the United States

Web Field Tr ip: Eng lish L ang uage Timeline
The British Library provides a fascinating timeline of how the English language has
evolved since the 11th century. English has undergone a significant evolution through the
ages. Though we technically speak the same language as our English-speaking ancestors,
it is likely we would have difficulty understanding one another. Visit the library’s “English
Timeline” at, and then consider
the following questions.

Critical Thinking Questions

1. At what point in this timeline do you think you could carry on a reasonable conversa-
tion with English speakers from the past?

2. Do you think we will be unable to understand individuals who are speaking English a
few hundred years from now?

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

(Official English, 2010). Thus, it is not surprising that over 20% of individuals living in the
United States—or 59.5 million people—speak a language other than English at home, accord-
ing to data from the 2010 census (Rumbaut & Massey, 2013). Like many languages, Ameri-
can English has various dialects—geographic or social differences in the way groups of
people use the same language. People who speak different dialects can usually understand
one another because they have the same language. However, they have different vocabularies
and unique phonology—the way the language sounds. For example, it is easy to recognize
differences between British and American English. The two dialects have both vocabulary
differences (such as petrol versus gasoline and lift versus elevator) and different phonology.
The early settlement patterns of the eastern United States mentioned earlier resulted in three
primary dialects of American English: Northern, Midland, and Southern. A Western dialect
began to develop in the late 1800s that was influenced primarily by Northern Midland speech.
However, the original Spanish-speaking populations and immigrant Chinese also affected the
Western dialect. Figure 4.1 shows a regional map of American English dialects.

Figure 4.1: National map of regional dialects of American English
ሁ American English has many dialects, and, as the map indicates, many are associated with a
geographic region of the country.

Source: Boeree, C. G. (2004). Dialects of English. Retrieved from Shippensburg University website at
Used by permission.

The influence of other immigrants (such as populations of Jews and immigrants from coun-
tries such as Ireland, Italy, and Poland) created regional variations and other dialects in the
eastern region of the United States. Even today it is easy to see how different words came to
be used for common objects in different regions of the United States. Table 4.1, for example,
illustrates American English vocabulary differences for a well-known sandwich and beverage.




Gulf Georgia-


South Carolina

North Carolina


Philadelphia area

NYC area


New England

North Central






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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

Table 4.1: Vocabulary differences in dialects of American English
Food type Region of the United States


Hero New York

Hoagie Philadelphia

Grinder Boston

Poor-boy Southern

Submarine or sub Western


Tonic Boston

Soda Northern and North Midland east of
the Susquehanna River

Pop Northern and North Midland west of
the Susquehanna River

Cold drink South and South Midland

Coke (also cola, soft drink, soda pop,
soda water, and phosphate)

Rhode Island

Source: Boeree, C. G. (2004). Dialects of English. Retrieved from Shippensburg University website at
cgboer/dialectsofenglish.html. Used by permission.

The Role of Language
We can use language for any number of reasons or to accomplish many different types of
goals. Language

1. serves as an abstraction of reality,
2. sustains and transmits culture,
3. expresses imagination and creativity, and
4. expresses confirming and disconfirming messages.

These four roles that language serves are particularly important for understanding how and
why we verbally communicate in interpersonal settings. Each of these functions is discussed

Language Serves as an Abstraction of Reality
Language is powerful because you can use it to construct your reality. You use the words of
your primary language to represent tangible and abstract objects. You often form a mental
picture of the object as you say a word and are thus also able to mentally create your world.
In this way, you associate words with the objects they represent. However, the word is not
the “thing” itself, but simply an abstract symbol, which is anything that conveys a meaning,
such as the words, pictures, sounds, marks, or objects we use to represent something else
that is apart from tangible existence and that exists only in the mind. A symbol can be writ-
ten, spoken, or nonverbal in nature. Drawings, photographs, and music can be symbolic. Even
objects such as homes, automobiles, clothing, and jewelry can be symbols. In fact, they are
often referred to as status symbols. Your mental image of the symbol is of your own making;
for this reason, symbols do not have the exact same meaning to everyone.

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

For example, the word freedom is not something that you can see, hear, or touch . However,
when you hear the word freedom, you imagine or visualize something in your mind. This
mental image is what the word means to you. For example, if someone has immigrated to the
United States from a country where they suffered from religious persecution, freedom might
mean practicing religion without fear. If one has been in prison for many years, freedom could
mean having the choice to be able to walk in a beautiful park. To someone else, freedom might
conjure up patriotic images of the U.S. flag or Fourth of July fireworks. What mental picture do
you associate with the word freedom? Although we have different pictures in our minds when
we hear or use a word and share a common language, we can communicate with one another
because words have common denotations. The denotation is the dictionary definition or
description of what the word represents—a definition that most can agree on. For example,
if you look up the word grandmother in a dictionary, you will find it described in a manner
similar to the following:

Grandmother: The mother of one’s father or mother.

The dictionary definition, or denotation, gives you the essential characteristics of what a
grandmother is and helps you construct a basic mental picture of it. The denotations of con-
crete words such as grandmother are generally clear and descriptive. If you did not know
what a grandmother is, it would be fairly easy for you to learn what it is from this denotation.

Abstract words such as freedom also have denotations. However, the denotation of an abstract
word is less specific and more subject to personal interpretation. For instance, a dictionary
definition of the word freedom reads something like the following:

Freedom: The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants or to exercise choice
and free will.

The definition, or denotation, of this abstract word is probably broad enough to encompass
the various interpretations different people might give to the word. However, it does not spe-
cifically tell you what type of power or right that freedom provides or what obligations or
duties you might have from which you need to be freed. What is meant by the word power,
for example? Does it refer to physical strength, control or influence over others, or spiritual
power? What is meant by free will? Answers to these questions are subjective; each person
will answer them in their own way based on their own perceptions, self-concept, and past

In addition to denotations, words also have connotations. The connotation is created by the
personal association you have with a certain word or the emotional meaning or impact of the
word to you. Connotations are frequently shared among members of a particular society, but
they also contain elements that are unique to each person. Connotative meanings exist along
with denotative meanings, and they are generally either positive or negative. For example,
when we first mentioned the word grandmother, you likely immediately imagined your own
grandmother. But maybe what you picture is the general image of a grandmother in our soci-
ety—an image of an older woman with gray or white hair who wears glasses and is warm
and welcoming. We can have connotations for any number of things that we use language to
describe, including the things that we like and the food that we eat. For example, the Corn
Refiners Association was concerned that consumers were linking the term high fructose corn
syrup with obesity. This connotation of high fructose corn syrup was so detrimental to sales

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

of their food products containing the ingredient that, in 2010, they applied to the federal gov-
ernment to rename the ingredient on their labels as corn syrup instead (Fredrix, 2010).

Language Sustains and Transmits Culture
Written and spoken verbal messages are a
primary method that individuals use to sus-
tain their culture and to educate and trans-
mit elements of their culture to others. We
learn about our own and others’ cultures by
reading books, searching online, and talking
with others about their cultural experi-
ences. Culture is passed down from genera-
tion to generation in multiple verbal forms:
through spoken stories or oral histories, by
writing down old family recipes, and via
poetry, literature, and song. If we share a
language with another culture that we are
visiting, we rely on that form of communica-
tion in multiple ways: by asking natives for
directions, by looking to street or public
transportation signs to determine where we
are and to find our way, and by reading written descriptions of places and things when visit-
ing a culture’s museums, parks, or memorials. (See the IPC Research Applied feature for some
insight into what your name conveys about you.)

IPC Research Applied: What Does Your Given Name Say
About You?
Your first name—it is as much a part of you as the color of your eyes or your height.
However, your name can also be considered a form of verbal communication, one that
may be a clue about how individualistic your culture is. One interesting way to consider
the interrelationship between culture and language is by tracing patterns of how U.S.
parents name their children over time. In a research study that was conducted in 2007,
social psychologists Jean Twenge, Emodish Abebe, and W. Keith Campbell analyzed nam-
ing data from the Social Security Administration from the years 1880 to 2007 to deter-
mine how many children were given common or popular names each year. This analysis
included over 325 million names—a massive sample size for a study of language. Twenge
and her colleagues (2007) argued that the number of children given common names would
decrease over time, and that this decrease would ref lect the growing individualistic nature
of American culture.

The researchers found that the number of babies given common name by their parents
has indeed decreased substantially: from 40% in 1890 to less than 10% in 2007 for boys,
and from 25% to 8% for girls during this same period. This decrease began to be steady in
1950 and then became particularly steep and continuous in 1983. The authors attributed
this decrease to an increased interest in giving children names “that will help them stand

(continued on next page)

krisblackphotography/iStock /Getty Images Plus
ሁ Language allows us to pass down aspects of

our culture, such as recipes, from generation to

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

In addition, many communication theorists believe that the language that we use determines
how we think and how we behave. In the early 1900s, anthropologist Edward Sapir posited a
theory that there was a connection between culture and language. Sapir believed that the very
structure of human language shapes our perceptions and how we view the world. Sapir’s stu-
dent, Benjamin Whorf (1940), took Sapir’s idea and then developed what is known as the
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which states that language is not just a way of voicing ideas, but it
also shapes and determines those ideas. The hypothesis states that we cannot think outside the
confines of our language. In other words, we are so immersed in our language and our culture
that we do not recognize how it influences our view of the world. For example, in Japan, privacy
is not prioritized to nearly the extent that it is in the United States. As such, the Japanese had no
word for privacy, and instead adapted our English word: “praibashii” (Worsley, 2012).

Language Expresses Imagination and Creativity
Our capacity for language is endless and it allows us to have a rich and vivid mental life in
which we can suffer regret, reminisce about events that occurred decades ago, have complex
wishes and yearnings, and reflect on what it is like to be ourselves. Language allows us to have
not only real experiences, but experiences that we simply imagine. Through language, you can
create and play with ideas that do not exist in the real world. You can recite stories, poems,
rhymes, and riddles and engage in games of pretend by yourself or with others. Unlimited
combinations of symbols are possible and, therefore, so are “mental creation[s] of possible
worlds” (Chomsky, 2004, para. 12). Our use of symbols to represent physical objects, ideas,
and emotions gives us the capacity to build cities, to make laws, and to create art and music.
Verbal communication then gives us the unique ability to work together as social creatures to
put those ideas into reality.

IPC Research Applied: What Does Your Given Name Say
About You? (continued)
out rather than fit in,” which is a way to use language to increasingly emphasize being
unique or individualistic in American culture (Twenge et al., 2007, p. 22).

Think about your own name. If you have a nickname that you prefer, why did you choose
to use it instead of your full first name? For example, “Jennifer” was an extremely com-
mon name for baby girls in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s, and having that
name usually meant sharing it with at least one or two other females in school and at work.
This common first name can be frustrating at times, because it means having to constantly
distinguish yourself (e.g., by preferring to be called “Jen” or by using the first letter of your
last name to set you apart). Keep this in mind as you consider the following questions.

Critical Thinking Questions

1. What does your own name say about you? Is it a common name or one that is a bit
more unique?

2. How does the individuality of your name impact who you are and how you interact
with others?

3. What effect might popular culture, in either a dominant or co-culture, have on baby
name trends?

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Section 4.1Verbal Communication

In addition, if there is not a symbol for what you are envisioning in your mind, you can use
language to create one. Over time, we have agreed to make various sounds and written com-
binations of letters and marks stand for certain objects in the environment, for certain behav-
iors, or for experiences we pick up through our senses or that register in our nervous system
and we call emotions (Hayakawa, 1964). Our ability to be creative and imaginative with lan-
guage is evident in the fact that 15,000 to 20,000 words are added to the English language
per year. For example, the word youthquake, which is “a significant cultural, political, or social
change arising from the actions or influence of young people,” was the 2017 Oxford word of
the year (“Word of the Year 2017 Is…,” 2017, para. 4). This imaginative function of language
thus allows you to flex your creativity in ways you never thought were imaginable (Halliday
& Webster, 2004).

Language Offers Confirming and Disconfirming Messages
As you have likely figured out, language is a powerful tool for human understanding, and even
just for basic survival. It can also be harmful or helpful in our interpersonal relationships.
Through verbal communication, we can confirm or disconfirm those with whom we interact.
A confirming message is one that provides a basic acknowledgment that the other person
is present and demonstrates your acceptance of them, how they define or view themselves,
and the relationship that you share. Using confirming messages is associated with greater
openness and shows that you positively regard the other person (Dailey, 2006). Imagine your
best friend is involved in a frustrating romantic relationship and often wants to discuss this
relationship with you. After a while it begins to bother you, especially when your friend fails
to take your advice, and it may be a struggle for you to continue to use confirming messages.
However, you can still do so in a number of ways, such as by maintaining focus on the situ-
ation and being involved in the interaction. This does not mean that you always agree with
your friend but that you recognize your friend’s point of view. You can engage in a dialogue
by being a simultaneous sender and receiver and express concern in a respectful way. And
you can ask questions to reflect back what your friend says and show that you understand.
In this way, you are being both an effective and appropriate communicator with your friend,
demonstrating your interpersonal communication competence by taking responsibility for
your communication, acknowledging that your view is one of only many, and respecting oth-
ers. Table 4.2 presents examples of confirming messages.

Table 4.2: Examples of confirming messages
Message Explanation Example message

Communicator maintains focus
on the situation

Gives the other communicator
exclusive attention

“Okay, I’ll put my laptop down so
I won’t be distracted.”

Communicator is …

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