“The most important thing in communication
is hearing what isn’t said.”
-Peter F. Drucker
More than half of all information communicated in conversation is done so in nonverbal form. Communication is far more than spoken words. We also use nonverbal behaviours to deliver and interpret messages
Types of nonverbal communication can differ considerably from culture to culture and from country to country.
What Is Nonverbal Communication?
Nonverbal communication describes the way people send and receive information to each other beyond words. It serves a number of functions:
To accent the meaning of verbal messages (such as pointing while stating directions)
To complement or contradict verbal messages (such as indicating sarcasm using verbal tone)
To regulate interactions with others (such as using nonverbal cues to indicate when people should and should not speak)
To substitute for verbal messages (such as nodding instead of saying “yes”)
Every person uses body language in everyday conversations whenever he speaks. You use body language in your everyday conversations whenever you listen. It is a way of communicating along with your verbal communication. So if you are learning English, you need to be aware of body language and its powerful role that impacts communication. What is body language? Well, when we speak, we use more than just words. We also communicate with our hand gestures, facial expressions including eye contact, and other movements of the body. This is called body language or non-verbal communication. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines body language as the gestures, movements, and mannerisms by which a person or animal communicates with others. 60-80% of all communication is non-verbal Some psychologists have studied communication styles and note that 60-80% of all communication with others is non-verbal?
Although nonverbal communication is a universal phenomenon, meanings of nonverbal cues are not, in fact, universal. They vary across cultures and are often multimeaningful. Because of this fact, it is important for people who work in international business or travel to other countries to have at least a simple understanding of the ways nonverbal cues are communicated across and within foreign cultures.
Consider the people you know who are fluent in languages, but do not get along very well with others from different cultures. Part of the reason is that verbal language by itself only communicates a certain amount of content. A person who only develops their language skills without the non-verbal behaviors that are associated with that language doesn't come across well. People can be saying the content they want to communicate, but just not come across correctly, because a lot of what is being communicated is non-verbal. This can lead to intercultural conflict, misunderstandings and ambiguities in communication, despite language fluency
2.1 Types of non verbal communication
There are many types of non-verbal communications like eye contact, hand movements, facial expressions, touch, gestures, etc.
Non-verbal communication is different from person to person and especially from one culture to another. Cultural background defines their non-verbal communication as many forms of non-verbal communications like signs and signals are learned behavior.
According to researches, six expressions are universal; they are happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise. But it might also be different like the extent to which people show these feelings, in some cultures people express openly and in some people do not.
Some of the nonverbal communication differences in different cultural are:
Western cultures mostly consider eye contact to be a good gesture. It shows attentiveness, confidence and honesty. Other cultures such as Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Native American do not take it as a good expression. It is taken as a rude and offensive expression.
Unlike in Western cultures taking it as respectful, other do not consider it that way. In Eastern cultures women should especially not have eye contact with men as it shows power or sexual interest. In some cultures, whereas, gazes are taken as a way of expression. Staring is taken as rude in most cultures.
Gestures such as thumbs up can be interpreted differently in different cultures. It is taken as “Okay” sign in many cultures whereas is taken as a vulgarism in others like Latin American cultures and in Japan some even take it as money.
Some cultures take snapping fingers to get the attention of a waiter as alright whereas some take it as disrespect and very offensive. Showing feet is taken as offensive in some Middle Eastern cultures. Some cultures take pointing fingers as insulting too. In Polynesia, people stick out their tongue to greet people which is taken as a sign of mockery in most of other cultures.
Touches are taken as rudeness in most cultures. Shaking hands is considered to be acceptable in many. Similarly, acceptability of kissing, hugs, and many other touches are different in different cultures. People in Asia are more conservative in these types of non-verbal communication.
Patting head or shoulder also has different meanings in different cultures. In some Asian cultures patting children’s head is very bad signal as head is taken to be sacred. Middle Eastern countries take touch between people from opposite genders is taken as bad character.
Where and how you are touched or touch changes the meaning of touch. So, you must be careful when you visit a new place.
Appearance is another form of non-verbal communication. People are judged from their appearance.
Grooming yourself to look good is taken as an important aspect of personality in most cultures. But, what is considered to be a good appearance is different again in different cultures. Modesty is also measured from appearance.
Body Movement and Posture
People receive information or message from body movements. It shows how people feel or think about you. If a person does not face you while talking to you can mean that the person is nervous or shy. It might also mean that the person doesn’t like to talk to you. Other body movements like coming to sit near or far can also show confidence, power or trying to control the environment.
Face shows feelings, attitudes and emotions. The degree of facial expressions are determined by cultures. People from United States show emotions more than their Asian counterparts.
Facial expressions are shown to be similar all over the world, but people from different cultures do not show it in public. The meanings of these are commonly acknowledged everywhere. Too much expression is taken to be shallow in some places whereas in some it is taken as being weak.
How we talk also constitutes of what we communicate. For example, vocal tones, volume, rhythm, pitch, etc. speak more than what words express. Asian people control themselves from shouting as they are taught not to from childhood.
They are known as vocal qualifiers. Vocal characterizations like crying, whining, yelling, etc. change the meaning of the message. Giggling is taken as a bad gesture in some cultures. Many other emotions are shown by vocal differences while all of them are included in paralanguage.
Physical Space (Proxemics)
People from different cultures have different tolerance for physical distance between people. In Middle Eastern culture people like to go near to others to talk while in others people might get afraid if anybody does so.
People have specific personal space which they do not want intruded. In some cultures, even close physical contact between strangers is acceptable.
2.2. Non verbal communication in different countries
2.2.1. High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures
To understand the nuances of nonverbal communication across cultures, it is important to know the differences between “high-context” and “low-context” cultures.It means we should understand the surroundings of an event .
“High-context” cultures rely heavily on nonverbal communication, using elements such as the closeness of their relationships, and deep cultural knowledge to convey meaning. In contrast, “low-context” cultures depend largely on words themselves. Communication tends to be more direct, relationships tend to begin and end quickly. It is important to note that no culture is “better” than another; communication styles simply convey differences, rather than superiority.
Much has been written about the differences between high- and low-context cultures, particularly by noted anthropologist Edward T. Hall. For business professionals, other useful differences are outlined below:
Communication tends to be indirect, harmoniously structured and understated.
In conversation, people are expected to speak one after another in an orderly, linear fashion.
Disagreements are personally threatening. It is important to solve conflict immediately or avoid it completely in order for work to continue.
Physical space is considered more communal. Standing very close to others is a common practice.
Verbal messages are indirect. Speakers often talk around a point (instead of directly to it) and use embellishments to convey meaning.
Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.
Some countries considered “high context” include Japan, Greece and various Arab nations.
Communication tends to be linear, dramatic, precise and open.
Because words are so highly valued, they are used almost constantly.
Disagreements are depersonalized. Conflicts do not have to be resolved immediately for work to continue. When solutions are found, they tend to be rationally based.
Privacy and personal space are highly valued. Physical space is considered privately owned.
Verbal messages are explicit and direct. Words are valued above their context.
Speed is valued. How efficiently something is done is important.
Some countries considered “low context” include the United States, Germany and various Scandinavian countries.
While “high” and “low” context are examples of opposing cultures, it is also true that many cultures fall in between these two extremes. Called “multi-active,” these cultures might include those of Spain, Italy or Latin America
Anthropologist Edward Hall founded the field of intercultural communication in 1959 with his book The Silent Language. The book was originally intended for the general public, but it sparked academic research in intercultural communication and fueled interest in subjects like nonverbal communication, according to Keio Communication Review.
Hall defines intercultural communication as a form of communication that shares information across different cultures and social groups. One framework for approaching intercultural communication is with high-context and low-context cultures, which refer to the value cultures place on indirect and direct communication.
2.3. Different nationalities – different types of behaviuor and communication
The British are famous as undemonstrative; they keep their emotion hidden from public view not to make anyone comfortable. The nature of the British is emphasized by their respect toward personal space. It is valued by them and in order to feel comfortable. Keeping an acceptable distance is advised. Another thing that during the conversation the British prefer to stand next to each other rather than opposite. British culture also avoid physical contact expect for the handshake, other forms of touching behavior which is irrelevant in business relations (Panfilova, 2004). Men should not allow contacting with women. Touching, hugging and kissing are usually used in family and with very close friends. As for eye contact, British have a tendency to keep it relatively short, as it can certain misunderstanding between people and direct contact may be mistaken for hostility and aggressiveness. If you are talking to a group, then make eye contact with all people and do not focus your attention on one person alone. Next point is that one should not ignore is clothing.
Conservative dress is the norm for both men and women in the British culture has darker colors such as black, dark blue, grey as wool predominate. The style of outfits depends on the profession. Civil servants, lawyers and accountants wear traditional formal suits, like an example here we note that people in advertising trends to put on something rather more flamboyant, though still stylish. Informal clothing is not appropriate even during leisure activities. The language of gestures in Britain is not frequently used and only the most basic gestures are used. Overdoing a gesture can sometimes come across as the aggressive behavior. There are some gestures that Englishmen use: the index finger is used to point something. One more is two persons holding hands indicate a romantic relationship. Paralanguage is concerned; the British speak in low tone without raising the voice. It is not polite to interrupt persons and intonation conveys one has finished speaking. In British the voice normally goes down at the end of affirmative sentences (Sossur, 1990)
2.3.2. The Americans
The United States of America have a lot of similarities with Great Britain’s non-verbal cues. Less space in the American culture may be associated with either greater intimacy or aggressive behavior. When they are listening to another person, they look almost constantly at the speaker’s eyes. In the USA women’s clothing more decorated and they obsessed with dress and personal attractiveness while men clothing is more functional (Sossur, 1990). In the American culture the smile is typically an expression of pleasure. Many Americans smile freely in public places. American men hide grief or sorrow and scratching the head means three different things: thinking, being confused or skeptical. To talk about first meetings a regular handshake is acceptable. Light hugs are common between good friends and family. They often raise their arm and waggle it back from. It is the sign of saying “hello” or “goodbye” or if they want to get someone’s attention
A head pat or head touch is an affectionate way of saying “well done” or “good job”.
A head nod means “yes” and a head shake means “no”.
Starring is considered rude in the USA.
Winking or whistling can be taken as a funny, fool around idea. Also it can be taken offensively in different situations.
The use of any hand is acceptable, depending on your preferable hand.
Waving is a polite way to say hello from a distance.
Palm can be facing up to call someone.
2.3.3. The Indians
Never touch anyone’s head in India, because it is considered the “seat of the soul” and is very offensive.
A head shake means yes while a head nod means no.
Starring is considered not offensive and a sign of “natural curiosity.”
Avoid use of the left hand. It is considered the “unclean” hand. Also accepting items and eating with the left hand is considered offensive.
Use a bow with hands together to greet someone.
Waving is the sign of “go away” instead of “hello.”
To call someone with your hand, your palm must be facing downward toward the ground.
The Indians have a “one arm length” rule when communicating.
2.3.4 The Australians
Australia is a very friendly and open culture.
Australians tend to be familiar in expression, tone and body language. Generally you should stand about an arm’s-length away when speaking to someone face to face but the distance will likely be less when standing side by side. Touching someone on the shoulder or the arm when speaking or to make a point is generally acceptable. Other physical contact should remain minimal until you get to know the person better. In a familiar situation or amongst family and friends, a kiss on one or both cheeks between a man and a woman or between two women (but not usually between two men) is usual. Australians are usually quite direct in expressing their point of view and expect others to do likewise.
Australians use a lot of slang in their daily communications and it can be difficult to pick up on their meanings right away. Many words are abbreviated and can be incomprehensible at first encounter:
Arvo – afternoon
Uni - University
Darl – pronoucned "Daaaahl", short for "Darling"
Firies - Firefighters
Brekkie – Breakfast
Chook – Chicken
Maccas - "McDonalds" (the fast food restaurant)
Esky - "Eskimo" - a brand name of insulated coolers whose name has become ubiquitous to refer to all kinds of coolers
Ta – Thank you
Battler – someone who's very strong, strong willed
Woop woop – an isolated place ("he lives out in the middle of Woop Woop!"
Generally speaking, Australians are quite direct in their communication style and don't have the same need to be diplomatic or politically correct as Americans. It can be a bit confronting at first, but something that one gets used to.
In terms of non-verbal communications, Australians do use hand gestures when speaking, and personal space is valued, quite similar to Americans. In a work environment, it is acceptable and expected to shake hands on arrival and departure, and in a social context among friends and family, Aussies tend to kiss on the cheek (a single kiss on the cheek) or briefly hug hello and goodbye.
2.4. Cross-cultural differences in nonverbal behaviour
What might appear to be the same gesture can have totally different meanings in different cultural context. Nodding the head, for example, means ‘I agree’ in some cultures, but ‘I don’t agree’ in others.
Some gestures are unique to a particular culture.
Gestures are grouped according to seven categories:
Signalling arrival and departure: for example, blowing a kiss, fist to chest pounding, shaking hands, hugging.
Showing approval: for example, applause, nodding ‘yes’, raising the arms, giving the ‘high five’ or ‘thumbs up’.
Showing disapproval: for example, yawning, folding arms, choking, finger-wagging, nodding ‘no’, holding or wrinkling the nose.
Attracting mates: for example, eyebrow-wriggling, eyelid-fluttering, staring or gazing, winking, holding hands.
Offensive and profane gestures: for example, chin-flicking, nose-thumbing.
Gestures for emphasis: for example, chin-stroking, making a fist, drumming fingers, snapping fingers, shrugging.
Replacing words: for example, ‘Call me’, using finger and thumb to mimic the shape of a telephone receiver, ‘Come here’, with an upturned palm and index finger crooked towards the body.
Many gestures involve the hand, but other forms of body language are also used to convey meaning.
Some cultures are more expressive than others in the display of nonverbal behaviours. In America, for example, Italian migrants typically gesture much more than British or Jewish migrants do. Japanese people use fewer hand, arm, and whole-body gestures than Americans generally do.
There are also cross-cultural differences in the ways people think about and deal with time.
Monochronic cultures view time as linear. In these cultures—the United States is one example—time is scheduled and segmented according to the clock. People allocate a specific amount of time to complete a single task; for example, scheduling a meeting in which attention is focused on the the topic in question for the entire time. In monochronic cultures, time is money. Efficiency and punctuality are highly valued. Tardiness is perceived as laziness and unreliability. In monochronic cultures, there is a strict divide between work and social time.
In polychronic cultures, time is viewed as more flexible and abundant. People try to accomplish many different tasks—private and public—at the same time. A meeting might be interrupted many times by various business or social interactions. Individuals are less concerned with clock time and more concerned with intuition—acting when ‘the time is right’.
In these cultures, time is flexible, so as to meet the needs of others and to ensure social harmony. It is considered respectful to let a conversation reach its natural end, even if it means going overtime. In China, to start a wedding banquet late, even by as much as two hours, is a sign of respect to the guests who have taken the trouble to attend. On the other hand, at non-social events, such as business meetings, the Chinese place a high value on punctuality. Within any particular culture, the use of time tends to vary according to circumstances.
There are cross-cultural differences in the amount of personal space that individuals need in order to be comfortable in their interactions. People from countries whose populations are dense tend to need less personal space. Where populations are more spread, people usually out prefer more.
Violations of cultural preferences for personal space can be discomforting. If you are allowed more actual personal space than your cultural preference demands, you might regard your partner as being cold, shy, or unfriendly. If you personal small is too small, you might think that your partner is intrusive, rude, or even aggressive.
The use of touch is related to how a culture uses space. In non-contact cultures, people rarely touch others, unless they are on intimate terms. Non-contact cultures include North Americans, Germans, English, and many Asian cultures.
By contrast, contact cultures regularly use touch to display affection towards others—even in business relationships. People in contact cultures keep less personal space and engage in more eye contact. This group includes Southern Europeans, Arabs, and South Americans.
There are cross-cultural differences in reactions to accidental touch. Western cultures are more offended by the touch of strangers when compared with Asian cultures. Asian nations are densely populated and people from these cultures have been socialised to ignore accidental touching.
There are cross-cultural differences in intentional touch. In some cultures, it is not unusual for heterosexual men to hold hands with each other as a sign of friendship. In the West, this would suggest sexual intimacy. Sexually conservative cultures are less comfortable with touch between members of the opposite sex. In Anglo cultures, it is friendly and affectionate to pat a child’s head. In many parts of Asia, however, it is inappropriate to touch someone’s head as it is considered to be a sacred part of the body. In the Middle East, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene. It should not be used to touch another person or to transfer objects.
Eye contact or gaze
In Western cultures, eye contact shows attentiveness and honesty. If you do not look an American in the eye, you might be perceived as uninterested or untrustworthy. Eye contact in low Power Distance and Individualistic cultures such as the United States expresses interest in your partner as an equal. In stark contrast, Collectivist and high Power Distance cultures use a lack of eye contact to convey respect and humility.
The appropriateness of public gaze also varies across cultures. In China, it is common, and quite acceptable, to stare at a strange or beautiful person. This is considered rude in the United States.
In the United States, there are differences in gaze and visual behaviour among different ethnic groups. White Americans maintain eye contact while listening and break eye contact when speaking. Black Americans do the opposite.
Facial or emotional expressions
Researchers have identified six universal facial expressions used to convey emotion: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These facial expressions are recognised and interpreted similarly across cultures. Despite this, people around the world express their emotions differently in social situations.
There are also culturally specific ways in which individuals express particular emotions. Smiling is a good example. It is usually associated with pleasure, but it can also convey affection or politeness, or even disguise true feelings. In some Asian cultures, smiling is used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment. North Americans smile to convey friendliness and goodwill. They smile more than Northern Europeans, who reserve smiling for occasions when they actually feel happy.
Focal emotions are emotions that are experienced and expressed more often in a particular cultural setting. For example, Americans and Russians both express anger and contempt more than Japanese people do. Focal emotions are related to cultural values. Cultures that value honour have greater frequency of anger. The greater expression of joy in the United States is linked to the cultural value emphasis on excitement.
Physical appearance and attractiveness
Physical appearance and attractiveness influence first impressions and contribute to snap judgements about an individual’s personality.
Someone who does not conform to a cultural norm of appropriate and pleasant physical appearance is perceived as an outsider—or possibly as a deviant. As an outsider, an individual is at risk of being stereotyped. An outsider might be socially alienated or experience prejudice and discrimination.
An important thing to remember is that you should not assume that everyone throughout the world understands your gesture in the way that you intend it to be. If you notice an unexpected reaction to any gesture that you make, you might want to stick to verbal communication when stating a similar point with that person or you might be able to find out why that particular person had such a reaction.
In English-speaking countries like Canada and the United States, having intermittent eye contact is important. You can smile at them when they say something humorous, positive or interesting. You can nod your head to show you are following their conversation or to show agreement. You may also interject a few short words or sounds (i.e. uh huh, mmmm, I see, etc.) to show that you are listening to the conversation
Another factor to consider is the distance you keep to the people you are speaking to. This is called your personal space. You need to stand at a distance that is comfortable for both of you and strike a balance of not being too close or too far away. Some cultures stand closer together when they speak. Some enjoy more space. It is important for you to be aware of these differences to make the encounter positive and non-threatening.
It is probably better to keep your hands at your sides when listening. Another good reason for this is that it frees your hands to make gestures, too.
And of course, there is your voice. Besides the words you choose to say, your voice also has intonation, volume and pitch (high and low sounds).
These characteristics all add to the meaning of what you say.
One helpful way to become better at speaking is to listen to the reaction of what your listening audience says through their non-verbal communication. Watch. Observe. Respond accordingly. Understanding nonverbal communication improves with practice. The first thing you need to do is to be aware of the power of this type of communication. With experience, your beliefs, and your reaction you will become better at interpreting nonverbal communication. You will also be able to respond in more of a natural, meaningful way to others in any experience involving communication. Learning appropriate body language is important in interactions between and among others of any culture, but most specifically when engaging in conversation in any sort of global community. This skill is just as important as listening, speaking, reading and writing English when it comes to acquiring English language skills.
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Hall, E. T. (1993). An Anthropology of Everyday Life. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.
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