When a Small Thing Means so Much: Nonverbal Cues as Turning Points in Relationships


  • Tony Docan-Morgan
  • Valerie Manusov
  • Jessica Harvey


This paper investigates reports of transformative nonverbal behaviors: cues that act as important interactional triggers for a change in or between people in a relationship. To explore such behaviors, we asked participants to report on any situation in which they recalled one or more nonverbal cues that they or others used and that changed something for them. The most commonly reported nonverbal cues that instigated transformation were facial expressions, eye behavior, touch, and the use of personal space. Vocal cues (particularly silence), gestures and other kinesic cues (e.g., walking away), use of time, and attire were also mentioned. Using the constant comparative approach, we found four large categories of changes the participants reported as resulting from these nonverbal cues and provide examples of these change types from our data corpus. We labeled these “relational,” “perceptual,” “affective,” and “behavior”. Our analyses revealed that judgments of the behavior/event’s valence correlated positively with judgments of their relationship, the other person, and themselves, suggesting that the affective judgment of a nonverbal turning point event may have strong implications for other important judgments. Vocal cues seemed to be involved in events that were labeled more negatively, and touch was a cue in events labeled more positively. Finally, eye behaviors were consistently a part of events that were reported to result in changes in perception.