Top 8 Differences in Nonverbal Communication across Cultures
Forget the 7% rule by Albert Mehrabian (UCLA) claiming that 93% of communication is nonverbal (55% attributed to body language and 38% attributed to tone/music of voice). The reality is that how you communicate depends on where you live, what culture you’re from and how you communicate in general. In some places and cultures, people speak very little but use many gestures. On the opposite side, some cultures use many words.
Nonverbal communication is the manner in which people send and receive information to each other beyond words. Nonverbal communication helps people communicate in several ways:
- to accent the meaning of their verbal message through gesture, facial expression, etc.
- as a substitution for verbal communication
- in order to regulate communications with others
- to contradict or complement verbal communication
Across the world, people use nonverbal communication as a way to communicate with others. However, how that nonverbal communication is presented may vary greatly from culture to culture and country to country.
Here are the top 8 differences in nonverbal communications across cultures:
- Eye contact
In most Western cultures, eye contact is considered to be a good thing. It demonstrates attentiveness, confidence and honesty. In Asia, the Middle East, Hispanic cultures and Native American cultures – eye contact is often considered disrespectful. In many Eastern cultures, women are discouraged from having eye contact with men as it conveys authority or sexual interest. In some cultures, gazing at someone is normal but in most cultures, staring is considered rude.
Cultural expressions and communication is often derived through touch. However, touching other people is often taken as rudeness in many cultures. Yet, shaking hands is considered to be acceptable in most 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 touching children on the head is very bad signal as head is taken to be sacred but in the United States, we often pat children on the head and it is okay. There are also a wide range of cultural viewpoints on the appropriate rules regarding physical contact between both similar and opposite genders. In parts of the E.U. it is common to kiss someone you greet informally on both cheeks. In the Middle East, the left hand is customarily used to handle bodily hygiene, so using the left hand to accept a gift or shake hands (or eat) is considered extremely rude.
Gestures are a common form of nonverbal communication whether we shrug our shoulders, give a high five or nod our heads (the most recognized gesture in the world). When traveling in Costa Rica, pedestrians give drivers a thumb up if they allowed them to walk by. In the United States, the thumbs up means “Okay” but is seen as a vulgarism other cultures and in Japan some even take it as money. Snapping your fingers to get the attention of a waiter is okay in some parts of the world but is disrespect and very offensive in other areas of the globe. Some cultures consider pointing fingers as insulting whereas in other parts of the world it is often used as a reference. In Polynesia, people stick out their tongue to greet people, but in most other cultures it is considered a sign of mockery.
- Physical Space
Also known as proxemics, the physical space between others is a form of nonverbal communication. There are four zones of proxemics: intimate, personal, social and public. People in different cultures have various levels of tolerance for proxemics between people. In many cultures, people are uncomfortable with close proximity (intimate and personal) to others and prefer a more social distance (four to seven feet) when communicating. Entering somebody’s personal space (1.5 – 2.5 feet) is normally an indication of familiarity or intimacy. However, it can be problematic to maintain personal space when in a crowded situations such as a train, elevator or street. Many people find such physical proximity to be psychologically disturbing and uncomfortable, although it is accepted as a fact of modern life.
- Facial Expressions
Facial expressions are responsible for a huge percentage of nonverbal communication. A simple smile, frown or smile can convey much information and a person’s face is often the first thing we see, even before we hear what they have to say, giving rise to a lot of nonverbal speak. Interestingly, the facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are alike around the world.
How we present ourselves to the public eye through our outward appearance is nonverbal communication. People are often judged or assessed based on their appearance. How one dresses (clothing), grooms oneself (hair, makeup, etc.) and even modesty can convey various messages in communication.
- Body Movement & Posture
Body movements can clearly convey intent, emotion and communication. It can show how people feel or think about you. Whether you face a person while talking, how you hold yourself when expressing confidence or simply whether you sit near or far from another person can provide nonverbal communicative messages.
Posture not only can communicate or mental status at the time (i.e, defeated) but also our physical condition (i.e. slouching may indicate being tired). In some cultures, keeping your hands in your pockets is a sign of disrespect while in other countries, sitting cross-legged is offensive.
Paralanguage refers to vocal communication that is separate from actual language and was invented by George L. Trager in the 1950s. Paralanguage includes factors such as tone of voice, inflection, loudness, speed and pitch. Simply changing your tone of voice may change the meaning of a sentence. A film from the early ‘80’s called Multiracial Britain: Crosstalk, does an excellent job of demonstrating cultural differences in paralanguage and the impact on relationships.