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Non-verbal Communication Among Cultures


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Non-verbal Communication Among Cultures

Communicating across cultural boundaries whether verbally or non-verbally, is a particularly important skill for international interaction of any kind (private, official, business etc.)

There are differences in communication norms from one social class to another within the same culture, but the chances of miscommunication increases substantially when people are from different cultures.

In such cases, the senders encode messages using their cultural filters and the receivers decode using the same messages using their filters. The result of using different cultural filters is often a misunderstanding that is difficult to solve.

Intercultural communication, as well as communication within the same culture, involves more than words. In fact, it is believed that 80 to 90 percent of all information is transmitted by means other than language (facial expressions, hand gestures, intonation, eye contact, body positioning, and body posture). Although most members of a society easily understand nonverbal forms of communication common to their society, outsiders may find the nonverbal communication difficult to comprehend.

Some of the many common forms of nonverbal communication that people involved in intercultural communication have to be aware of, depending on the culture with which they interact:

Hand gestures

Facial expression, such as smiles, frowns, yawns

Posture and stance (the distance between interlocutors)

Clothing and hair styles (hair being more like clothes than like skin, both subject to the fashion of the day)

Walking behaviour

Interpersonal distance


Eye contact and direction of gaze, particularly in “listening behaviour”

Architecture and interior design

“Artifacts” and nonverbal symbols, such as label pins, walking sticks, and jewelry

Graphic symbols such as pictures to indicate “men’s room” or “handle with care”

Art and rhetorical form, including wedding dances and political parades

Smell (olfaction), including body odors, perfumes, and incense

Speech rate, pitch, inflection, and volume

Colour symbolism

Synchronization of speech and movement

Taste, including symbolism of food and the communication function of chatting over coffee or tea; oral gratification, such as smoking or gum chewing

Cosmetics: temporary, such as powder and lipstick; permanent, such as tattoos

Drum signals, smoke signals, factory whistles, police sirens

Time symbolism: what is too late or too early a time to telephone or visit a friend or too long or too short to make a speech or stay for dinner

Timing and pauses within verbal behaviour


Because of cultural differences, nonverbal forms of communication often can lead to misunderstandings. For example, in the U.S., people discussing business at a party typically stand 20 inches from each other. In Saudi Arabia, the normal conversation distance is 9 to 10 inches. A U.S. business person conversing with a Saudi counterpart at a party will respond to the Saudi’s polite attempts to move in closer by politely moving back. Each is acting politely within his or her own culture – and insulting the other in the context of that person’s culture.

Differences in the hand gestures and facial expressions also exist among cultures. Nodding one’s head means “yes” in the U.S. or Romania but “no” in Bulgaria.

Joining the thumb and forefinger in a circle while extending the remaining three fingers is the signal for “okay” in the U.S.; however, it symbolizes money to the Japanese, worthlessness in French, male homosexuals to the Maltese, and a vulgarity in many parts of Eastern Europe.

So, it is advisable to avoid gesturing in a foreign culture unless being sure of the meaning of particular gestures in the particular culture.

Facial expression

There are individual differences in matter of emotional expressiveness, but the variability is mainly guided by specific cultural norms.

Even silence has meaning. People in the U.S. abhor silence at meetings or in private conversation, believing that silence reflects an inability to communicate or to empathize. In Japan silence may indicate nothing but that the individual is thinking or that additional conversation would be disharmonious.

Attitudes towards silence also affect management styles. A Japanese manager will demonstrate leadership by silence, thereby encouraging full participation by subordinates attending a meeting and promoting group consensus. On the contrary, U.S. managers often tend to dominate group discussions to signal their competence and leadership abilities.

The eye-contact gains different values in different cultures:

- In western cultures, the eye-contact is interpreted as openness for communication, whereas avoiding eye-contact is considered a proof of insincerity and the intention of hiding away one’s real intentions. 

- In some oriental cultures, norms do not allow looking in the eyes certain categories of people, showing thus disrespect: elderly ones, people of opposed sex or belonging to a higher social class.

Gift giving and hospitality are important means of communication in many cultures. Japanese etiquette requires solicitous hospitality. Elaborate meals and after-hours entertainment serve to build personal bonds and group harmony among the participants. These bonds are strengthened by the exchange of gifts, which vary according to the occasion and the status of the giver and the recipient.

Gifts are usually opened in private in case the gift is too expensive or too cheap as compared to the gift offered in return.

The culture (including the business culture) of Arab countries also includes gift giving and elaborate and gracious hospitality. Unlike in Japan, gifts are opened in public so that all may be aware of the giver’s generosity.

Religion often plays an important role in shaping cultural values and behaviours. It affects the way in which members of a society relate to each other and to outsiders.

For instance, in Saudi Arabia (or Iran) whose population is 99% Muslim and have certain daily rituals of prayers, people from other culture have to respect this program in all instances.

Besides, female officials or executives of non-Muslim countries face additional obstacles because of Saudi attitudes toward the appropriate roles for women, attitudes which stem for their religion. Jobs opportunities for women are limited, in the belief that their contact with adult males should be restricted to relatives.

Values and Attitudes

Culture also affects and reflects the secular values and attitudes of the members of a society.

- Values are the principles and standards accepted by the members. Cultural values often stem for deep-seated beliefs about the individual’s position in relation to his or her deity, the family, and the social hierarchy.

- Attitudes encompass the actions, feelings and thoughts that result from those values. Cultural attitudes about such factors as time age education, and status reflect these values and in turn shape the behaviour.

Cross-cultural literacy – p. 111

When communicating internationally, many people make the mistake of relying on the self-reference criterion, i.e. the unconscious use of one’s own culture to help assess new surroundings.

E.g.: a U.S. salesperson who calls on a German customer and asks about the customer’s family is acting politely according to U.S. culture, but rudely according to German culture, thereby generating ill will and the potential loss of a customer.

When travelling abroad people must remember that they are the foreigners and must attempt to behave according to the rules of the culture at hand.

There are numerous ways to obtain knowledge about other cultures to achieve cross-cultural literacy:

the best and most common is the personal experience (from travelling abroad)

cross-cultural training programs offered by some institutions

from various published sources (books, magazines etc.), other media

Cross-cultural literacy is the first step to acculturation, the process by which people not only understand a foreign culture but also modify and adapt their behaviour to make it compatible with that culture.

To complicate matters further, many countries have more than one culture although the level of such cultural diversity varies by country. Japan, with a population consisting of 99.4 percent ethnic Japanese, is extremely homogenous. Conversely, the U.S. is culturally heterogeneous, with significant Caribbean, Latin America, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, African, and Asian communities complementing the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture.

This means that people travelling to communicate abroad must recognize the attributes of the primary national culture as well as any important subcultures in culturally heterogeneous societies. 

There are also cultural clusters that comprise countries that share many cultural similarities, although differences do remain. Many clusters are based on language similarities, as apparent in the Anglo, Germanic, Latin American, and Arab clusters, and to a lesser extent, in the Nordic and Latin European clusters.

Language (both in its verbal and nonverbal manifestation) is a primary delineator of cultural groups because it is an important means by which a society’s members communicate with each other. Experts have identified some 3,000 different languages and as many as 10,000 distinct dialects worldwide.

Language organizes the way members of a society think about the world. It filters observations and perceptions and thus affects unpredictably the messages that are sent when two individuals try to communicate.

In addition to shaping one’s perceptions of the world, language provides important clues about the cultural values of the society and aids acculturation.

E.g. - the formal form of “you” in some languages (Romanian, French, German, Spanish, as compared to English)

Major languages in the world:


Chinese dialects






Russian and other Slavic



Turkic languages

The presence of more than one language group is an important signal about the diversity of a country’s population and suggests that there may also be differences in culture.

E.g.: India recognizes 16 official languages, and approximately 3,000 dialects are spoken within the boundaries, a reflection of the heterogeneity of its society. In several mountainous countries of South America, including Bolivia and Paraguay, most of the poor rural population speaks local Indian dialects and has trouble communicating with the Spanish-speaking urban elites.

Generally, countries dominated by one language group tend to have a homogeneous society, in which nationhood defines the society. Countries with multiple language groups tend to be heterogeneous, with language providing an important means of identifying cultural differences within the country.


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