Last Updated 26 Mar 2021

Understanding Nonverbal Ambiguity

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Nonverbal messages can often be misunderstood. Often this misinterpretation is said to be socio-cultural. I remember an instance myself when I was in high school and a miscommunication happened between my friends and I.  It was only so unfortunate that it happened in the course of passing our exams. Naturally, we knew we could increase our ability to pass if we worked as a team. One of my classmates suggested that we come up with hand gestures that would represent each of the four letters that almost always appear in our test papers: a, b, c, and  d. Hence, it was agreed that the hand gestures would be used as a tool during our exam week.

Our hand gestures comprised a set of inconspicuous behaviors such as light scratching of ones’ nose for the letter a, pinching lightly ones’ ears for letter b, wiping ones’ handkerchief to the face for letter c and ultimately, shifting from one side to the other in ones’ seat for letter d. So during the exam week we started with a relish. History was our first exam and with our ‘tool’ we went through it like breeze.

Naturally, physics being the most challenging of all subjects was where I highly depended on my classmates the most. My best friend, who was sitting a row in front of me, was excellent at physics and I answered faithfully to the hand gestures he showed. Finally, results were given the following week and I was amazed at the result of my physics test: an F. I was shocked, since I was certain to get a B or A.

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So after the class, my friend and I had a little chitchat and it turned out he wasn’t feeling so well at the time, which must have explained why he kept shifting from side to side. I thought his ‘side shifting’ was an answer to the physics questions when they were a response from feeling uncomfortable during the time. The result of that misinterpretation was a failing grade. My experience of nonverbal ambiguity was nevertheless simple for which there was no any catastrophic reaction however for people belonging to different cultures or backgrounds the implications for any misinterpretation maybe enormous.


  1. Montshire Minute: Non-Verbal ways of Communication . 8 June 1998. 29 June 2007 <>.














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