Nonverbal and verbal communication in “involved” and “casual” relationships among college students

Kristen McGinty

Two hundred thirty three never married undergraduates at a large southeastern university completed a 45 item questionnaire designed to assess nonverbal and verbal communication differences in “involved” and “casual” dating relationships. Findings revealed that “involved” daters, females, and whites are significantly more likely to be concerned about nonverbal communication than “casual” daters, males, and blacks. Implications for university students, faculty, and counselors are suggested.


“My wife said I don’t listen to her … at least I think that’s what she said” quipped humorist Lawrence Peter. His words reflect the concern of this study–communication. Previous research has documented that communication is the most frequent problem in dating (Knox, Zusman, and Custis, 1988). Researchers have consistently demonstrated an interest in nonverbal communication. Argyle (1987) listed the functions of nonverbal communication as informational, regulation of interaction, intimacy, social control, and the service-task function (e.g. scripted interactions in secondary group interactions such as a physician and patient the physician can wear a white coat, act professionally, and ask personal body questions).

Rashottte (1997) identified 98 nonverbal behaviors while L’Abate and Bagarossi (1993) emphasized the importance of nonverbal communication and relationship satisfaction. They noted that nonverbal parts of a message carry more weight than verbal messages when these two components conflict. For example, if Kimberly tells Carl “I love you” but crosses her arms, stands back, and looks at the floor when she says these words, Carl is likely to feel that Kimberly really doesn’t mean what she says. The focus of the current study was on the differences in nonverbal and verbal communication between partners in two categories of college students–the “involved” (emotionally involved in a reciprocal love relationship with one person) and “casually” dating (dating different people).

Sample and Methods

The data consisted of responses to a forty-five item questionnaire anonymously completed by two hundred and thirty-three undergraduates at a large south-eastern university. Over two-thirds (67.3%) of the respondents were female; 32.7% were male. In regard to relationship status, most (56.6%) were casual daters with 43.4% dating someone exclusively, engaged, or married (referred to as involved). Whites comprised 78% of the sample, blacks 20%, with 2% reporting mixed race/heritage.

Findings & Discussion

Analysis of the data revealed several significant findings:

1. Involved daters value nonverbal communication more than casual daters. When students were asked “How important do you think nonverbal communication is in a relationship?” with 1 = “very important” and 10 = “not important at all” (so that the lower the score the greater the importance) the mean value of the “involved” and “casual” daters was 3.08 vs. 3.75, respectively (p<0.03). Previous research has demonstrated that the more involved the individuals become the more serious they regard their relationship issues (e.g. similar values–requiring a person to have similar values) (Knox, Zusman and Nieves, 1997). Being sensitive to and concerned about the nuances of nonverbal communication is an extension of being more serious about relationship issues.

2. Involved daters work on nonverbal behavior more than casual daters. Not only did the involved respondents value nonverbal behavior in the abstract, they were more likely (p<0.005) than casual daters to "work hard" to insure that their nonverbal behavior reinforced their verbal behavior. "I try to make sure that what I do backs up what I say," noted one college student.

3. Partner of involved works on nonverbal communication more. Involved respondents, in contrast to casual daters, felt that they were not alone in working on nonverbal behavior. The involved daters were significantly more (p<0.007) likely to report that "my partner works hard to make sure their nonverbal actions reinforce their verbal behavior."

4. Involved daters less confused than casual daters. Given that both the “involved” respondents not only value, but “work hard” as do their partners to insure congruency in nonverbal and verbal behavior and nonverbal and verbal communication, it is not surprising that they are significantly (p<0.005) "less confused than casual daters" when their partner says one thing and does another. Indeed, the attention and effort the involved give to this aspect of their relationship seems to have the desired effect.

5. Involved daters happier than casual daters. Relationship satisfaction was assessed by students selecting a number on a continuum from one (complete satisfaction in every respect) to ten (complete dissatisfaction in every respect) so that the lower the number, the higher the satisfaction. The mean value for the “involved” and “casual” daters was 3.08 and 5.08 respectively (p<0.000). Previous research has documented that relationship involvement is associated with higher levels of satisfaction (Stack, 1998; Nock, 1995).

6. Other findings. While the above findings are in reference to nonverbal communication in involved and casual relationships, the data also revealed a number of other significant findings.

A. Females value nonverbal behavior more than males. When females in our sample were compared with males, the former were significantly more likely (p<0.001) than males to report that nonverbal behavior "should" be regarded as important. Previous research has demonstrated that women (more than men) are more serious about communication in relationships (Tannen, 1990). Spangler (1995) observed that females are better "decoders of nonverbal behavior" than males.

B. Females engage in more nonverbal behavior. When females are compared to males, the former were more likely to look their partner straight in the eye and to nod their heads when their partner spoke. Guerrero (1997) also noted that females were more likely to engage in nonverbal behavior than men when such behavior was defined as displaying “direct body orientation and gaze”. Moore (1998) found that when women want to dissuade an aggressor they display high rates of nonverbal rejection behavior. She documented 17 such behaviors that signaled noninterest or rejection such as yawning, frowning, and pocketing the hands.

C. Whites value nonverbal behavior more. Whites were significantly (p<0.017) more likely than blacks to believe that nonverbal behavior is (p<0.001) and should be (p<0.019) important to a relationship. Our hypothesis regarding this finding is that blacks face enormous pressure to adapt to the mainstream white culture even with little to no attention given to nonverbal communication. Hence, blacks may feel more predisposed to believe in the verbal, the literal. Meanwhile, whites may feel no such pressure and more "free" to focus on nonverbal aspects of communication. Whites (compared to blacks) also significantly (p<0.027) feel that their relationship would be better if their partner would use more nonverbal behavior.


The findings of this study have several implications for university students, faculty, and counselors. For students, the study reemphasizes the enormous importance nonverbal cues and behaviors are to human interaction. Faculty of relationship and communication courses have additional data on the use of nonverbal/verbal behavior by women and men in involved and casual relationships. University counselors might be more sensitive to the “real messages” conveyed via nonverbal cues displayed by their clients- particularly individuals in dyads they are seeing in therapy.


Argyle, M. 1987. Functions of nonverbal communication. Semiotica, 67, 135-140.

Guerrero, L. K. 1997. Nonverbal involvement across interactions with same-sex friends, opposite-sex friends and romantic partners: Consistency or change? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 14, 31-54.

Knox, D, M. E. Zusman, and L. Custis. 1988 Relationship problems of casual and involved university students. College Student Journal, 32, 6-6-609.

Knox, D., M. E. Zusman, and Wandy Nieves. 1997. College students’ homogamous preferences for a date and mate. College Student Journal, 31,445-448.

L’Abate, L. And D. A. Bagaroszzi 1993. Source-book of marriage and family interaction. New York: Brunner/Mazel

Moore, M. M. 1998. Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: Rejection signaling- An empirical investigation. Semiotica, 118, 201-214.

Nock, S. L. 1995. Commitment and dependency in marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 503-514.

Rashotte, L. S. 1997. Nonverbal behaviors and the impressions they create. Paper, Annual Meeting of American Sociological Association.

Spangler, L. 1995. Gender specific nonverbal communication: Impact for speaker effectiveness. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 6, 409-419.

Stack, S. Marriage, family, and loneliness: a crossnational study. Sociological Perspectives, 41, 415-433.

Tannen, D. 1990. You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. London: Virago.



East Carolina University


Indiana University Northwest

COPYRIGHT 2003 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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