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Meta-communication: Beyond Words and Sentences

In this article, I shall explain these patterns that help us understand meta-communication as it happens and use it appropriately in organisational context.

Credit: CanvaMeta-communication: Beyond Words and Sentences

Meta is an interesting prefix. It adds immense value to anything that follows it. Think “metaphysical”, and you travel beyond the physical reality. Talk about “metaverse”, and you are in a virtual world with augmented reality. Now, examine “meta-communication”, and you intuitively interpret gestures, facial expression, voice modulation, symbols and silence. So, meta-communication is what gets communicated beyond uttered words and sentences. Well, “meta” is a Greek prefix that means “beyond”, “transcending” or “more comprehensive”.A lady draped in a saree is perceived as traditional.

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A speaker with poor eye contact is considered ineffective. A statement like, “Please sit down” can be impolite if each word is stressed (while speaking), the tone falls, the pitch is low and the voice is grave. Or, the person who is speaking it holds an unfriendly facial expression.

In this article, I shall explain these patterns that help us understand meta-communication as it happens and use it appropriately in organisational context.

Let’s go!!

We can’t live in isolation. Anyone who seems to be non-communicative is tagged unsocial, unfriendly, introvert or even a recluse! Consider an officer, who does not talk to any of her colleagues, does not speak in meetings, and does not entertain any complainant. Do you think this will take her any further in her profession? Of course not! On the contrary, think of a manager who is participative in discussions, converses with all her peers and accommodates the queries of customers. How do you rate her performance? I am sure, pretty positively.

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Despite the unifying nature of communication, it can also lead to division, conflicts, and breakdowns. Many negative occurrences in communication can be attributed to a lack of understanding. To address this, we need "communication about communication," or understanding cues “beyond communication,” called meta-communication. Meta-communication involves discussing and interpreting spoken words and statements, taking into account both direct and indirect cues. For example, a message like "you are stupid!" can be hurtful, but when accompanied by a winking emoji, it takes on a different meaning. This demonstrates the power of meta-communication.


Coined by Gregory Bateson in 1951, meta-communication explains the secondary communication, especially the nonverbal cues. It suggests how a piece of information needs to be interpreted based on direct and indirect cues that accompany it. For this, it is necessary to learn to interpret kinesics, haptics, Oculesics, chronemics, proxemics, paralanguage and sign language. To decipher nonverbal cues- singular and clusters, we need to develop observational skills.

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Deciphering meta-communication through observation

Body language or Kinesics can be studied through facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, appearance, space, tactile etc. You frown to show discontent and smile to express pleasure. Your engrossed look with palm on the chin will be perceived as deep thinking. Your stern look with clipped lips under your teeth conveys anger. Similarly, your gestures like curling of the fingers in and out is “come here”, waving of hand means “good bye”, shrugging of shoulders shows “not aware or not knowing”, thumbs up means “all the best” or “like”.

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Your eye contact is quite vital. The eyes along with the eyebrows, eyelids and pupils convey feelings of people. The study of eye behaviour is Oculesics. A dancer uses her eye movements to communicate many ideas and emotions with utmost ease. Have you observed your eye movements? When are they most expressive? Do you maintain eye contact with the audience while making a presentation? Are you confident looking at people eye to eye?

Your appearance (body structure, shape and posture) creates an impression on the on-looker. Persons with certain body structures (tall, slim, well-built, well-toned etc.) are accepted better than some others. Are you conscious of your looks and body structure while interacting with persons? If yes, do you agree that appearance is a form of communication that communicates about the speaker?

While conversing, you feel comfortable standing or sitting close to certain persons, and with others, you want to maintain distance. This type of space distancing between people is called proxemics. The distance between persons conversing face-to-face can be divided into intimate (from physical contact to 18”), personal (from 18” to 4’), social (from 4’ to 12’) and public space (12’ and above).

At the workplace, shaking hands is a common practice. By the touch, one can realize whether the person is tough, warm, gentle or flirtatious. This is haptics and is an integral part of meta-communication that can help understand a person’s information better.

The objects have a language of their own. Like the dress you wear, the accessories and other possessions that you carry. Likethe lawyer’s coat denotes the profession of law; a stethoscope always belongs to a doctor, and a pen adorns a literate. People wearing watch are considered to be time conscious and those with gorgeous ornaments are considered rich. Thus, objects and dresses communicate about a person and cannot be neglected as petty things.

People who respect time communicate sincerity, discipline and alertness. Time is also equated with money. A latecomer is perceived to be insincere and irresponsible. This is chronemics.

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Signs and symbols also communicate. Visual or graphical signs like logos and audio jingles are examples of sign language. Even the gestures meant to communicate with people who are hearing impaired come under sign language.

Paralanguage is the “how” in spoken language. It includes voice, volume, speed, stress, intonation, pitch and pause. This is quite apparent when we listen to a speech or an RJ. The voice quality attracts us to the speaker.

Silence is meta-communication. Although the interpretation of silence varies across contexts, it holds significant meaning. Silence during work signifies concentration and discipline, while silence at a funeral is a sign of respect. In the workplace, silence without work may indicate protest, while an accused person's silence in a courtroom can be seen as an acceptance of guilt. Silence from top management regarding a bonus issue may suggest non-acceptance. Therefore, silence can effectively communicate various messages.

In conclusion, communication goes beyond the mere use of words. Understanding the nuances of meta-communication, such as nonverbal cues, body language, appearance, space, touch, paralanguage, objects, time, signs, symbols, and silence, is essential for effective communication. By developing observational skills and paying attention to these aspects, you can improve your ability to connect and convey thoughts accurately in various contexts.

Until next time, keep observing meta-communication!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)