Nonverbal Communication Across Cultures Cultural Studies Essay

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Carl is you typical Filipino teenage who luckily wins an opportunity to be part of a youth conference held abroad. He meets many teenagers, just like him, who comes from different parts of the world. Upon interacting with them, he finds some cultural practices to be somewhat weird and uncomfortable for him. Likewise, he also feels that the other teenagers feel the same way about him; he doesn't know why. To make matters worse, his roommate is of Middle Eastern background. Carl can't quite understand why his roommate talks too close to him and that his roommate frequently breaths right in front of his face. Not knowing what to does, he just politely gestured to go out and then he eventually did. With a lot in his mind, he decided to grab a drink. Upon arriving at the refreshments corner, he met the Iranian girl which had recently given a wonderful presentation earlier. Hoping to make friends with her, Carl gestured her with the thumbs up hand signal for a job well done. Expecting a smile or a thank you from her, Carl got the complete opposite; a humiliating slap to the face.

The world now is getting smaller and smaller; this is made possible because of globalization and technology. Individuals from all over the globe are now given the opportunity to meet and understand other individuals whose cultural background may be different from theirs. Because of this, misunderstandings might arise. In order for this not to happen, individuals must be very good communicators. One way of developing excellent communicating skills despite differences in background is by learning and mastering nonverbal communication and its different interpretations around the world. In this paper, one will be given an overview about what nonverbal communication is in general and a lot of examples and scenarios on how different cultures interpret these nonverbal cues.

Statement of the Problem

This paper aims to give readers an overview of what nonverbal communication is and its importance in the communication process, particularly in the cross- cultural setting. Also In this paper the discussion of the interpretation of the different cultures of the various nonverbal cues is also presented.

Particularly, this paper first discusses what communication is and how communication happens nonverbally. The distinct properties of nonverbal communication from the verbal communication is then discusses along with the functions of nonverbal communication afterwards. Next to this, the different nonverbal cues are then each thoroughly discussed so as to give the reader a general knowledge about the topic. After achieving this, the importance of nonverbal communication in inter-cultural interactions will then be discussed. Afterwards, common scenarios of how different cultures perceive each nonverbal cue will be given so that the readers will be made aware of how diverse each nonverbal cue is interpreted. This is also to equip them with an important knowledge which they will surely find useful and applicable in their day to day lives. Lastly, the paper will then discuss practical applications of the knowledge of nonverbal communication and its interpretation in different cultures all around the world.

Significance of the Problem

The study of nonverbal cues and its interpretation around the world is beneficial to all. Here are just some specific groups of people and the benefits they can achieve by harnessing the full potential of the use of nonverbal communication.

To the migrant workers, the knowledge of the nonverbal ways of communicating, particularly in their host country, is essential for their survival. It's thru the knowledge of the nonverbal cues in which they can become more effective communicators. And by becoming effective communicators, they are able to avoid misunderstandings and be able to express themselves more easily and effectively.

To the professionals, by becoming knowledgeable in nonverbal communication, they can have an edge against others. Armed with this, it will be easier for them to climb p the corporate ladder or advance more quickly in their desired career path and also make business deals with foreigners easier.

To the teenagers, by becoming aware of the nonverbal cues and its different interpretations across cultures, they become more culturally integrated. They then begin to understand others who are different form their own more intently and eventually learn to mingle cohesively with others. With this being achieved, world peace can slowly be materialized thru the efforts of the youth around the world.

To the elderly, with the knowledge of the nonverbal cues across cultures they can become more aware of the changes around them. By doing so, they won't be shaken by the changes which might occur around them. Also this gives them the opportunity to know more about certain actions which may be, in their culture, rude or obscene but isn't for another. This is to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts.

Scope and Limitations

This study focuses more on the general overview on what nonverbal communication is and the common interpretation of nonverbal cues around the world. Nonverbal communication is still a budding research topic in the scientific community; hence, there aren't that many studies yet that are conducted on the subject. Due to time constraints, this paper isn't able to discuss the specifics which revolve around the subject. The researcher was not able to know how each study was conducted by the person in authority. The researcher was only able to get the conclusions which were derived from these studies and experimentations. Also the aspect of communication in which this subject was based was on face-to-face interactions, not thru any other means. Another limitation is that only a fraction of all the interpretation of nonverbal cues around the world is discussed in the reason. As what was stated earlier, the interpretation of nonverbal communication across cultures is a relatively new venture in the scientific community and only a handful of research has been conducted as of the moment. Another reason being that literatures and sources about this subject are still relatively new and that most of these are very hard to find or be obtained especially in our locality.

Definition of Terms

Nonverbal communication. A process whereby people, through the intentional or unintentional manipulation of normative actions and expectations, express experiences, feelings and attitudes in order to relate to and control themselves, others and their environments.

Intrinsic codes.


In the books written by Griffin (1991) and Hayakawa (1990), it was stated that communication has no single accepted definition. But rather there are three perspectives in which it is understood.

First is the Communication Behavior Perspective. It is defined based on the actions of the individuals involved - meaning it can be either sender-oriented of receiver-oriented. According to the sender oriented definition, communication happens if the sender has the intention to send a message with the use of a language. It is irrelevant to know if ever the receiver gets the message or not. On the other hand, the receiver-oriented definition holds that communication as the response of an organism to a stimulus.

The second perspective is the Communication Process Perspective. It looks on communication as the collaborative effort of two or more individuals. Therefore, according to this perspective, it is wrong to assume that communication is happening between two people if only one is involved in the process; regardless is he/she is the sender or at the receiving end. There are three definitions of the Communication Process Perspective. First is the bilateral definition which assumes that the sender must intend to send a message and that the receiver must interpret that message. Second is the Interaction-oriented definition which holds that communication happens if two individuals are both sending and receiving messages. And lastly the shared-meaning definition holds that communication happens only if the message is essentially, although not precisely, interpreted as what it was suppose to.

For purposes of understanding Nonverbal Communication it is recommended to use the last communication perspective is the Communication Code Perspective. It emphasizes that communication is possible thru the use of communication codes. First type of communication code is the intrinsic codes. These are codes which we have even before birth. These are biologically shared codes among humans for communication purposes. Next are iconic codes which are learned in which the outward appearances are used to deliberately to communicate with others. The last communication code is the arbitrary code which is a learned signal system which is socially constructed and it uses symbols to convey messages.

Nonverbal Communication

Importance of Nonverbal Communication

In an article by the Oklahoma Panhandle State University, it was noted that that Hickson & Stacks (1985) defined nonverbal communication as "A process whereby people, through the intentional or unintentional manipulation of normative actions and expectations, express experiences, feelings, and attitudes in order to relate to and control themselves, others and their environments." Moreover, Wertheim mentioned in his article that a large percentage of the meaning derived from communication is from the non-verbal cues.

Moreover, in a study conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian called Mehrabian's communication study attests to the fact that indeed nonverbal communication plays a crucial part in the communication process. Mehrabians concluded the following from the experiments he conducted. He subsequently generalized that in all communication, 7% happens thru spoken words while 38% thru voice tone and 55% happens via body language, the two being nonverbal ways of communicating. Although the exact numbers may be challenged, the fact remains that a lot of communication happens nonverbally.

The words of Remland (2000) in his book seem apt as conclusion to this part of the paper. He stated that,

Overall, it pays to look good, wear an authoritative uniform, dress up, make eye contact, get close, and use light touch to the forearm or shoulder. Perhaps with additional research we may be able to add other nonverbal cues - facial expression, speech accents, vocal qualities, posture and so forth - that could also make a difference. It may surprise us to learn that seemingly trivial actions can play so prominent a role in our everyday interactions.

Properties of Nonverbal Communication

According of Leathers (2008), Nonverbal Communication has four distinct properties which differentiate it from Verbal Communication. These are the following:

First property is that many nonverbal cues are universal. It is because of their survival value for our species. They identify us, protect us and facilitate courtship and mating.

The next property is nonverbal communication is that nonverbal signals are sent and received spontaneously. We can always choose our words carefully, but nonverbal cues such as blushing, dropping our jaw and many more occur involuntarily. That is why nonverbal messages are more believable because of the cause-and-effect relationship. But it doesn't mean they can't be mimicked, it is just that many are tough to fake and most are hard to fake convincingly.

The third property is that nonverbal communication resembles the things they mean. Unlike verbal communication which doesn't necessarily represent their referents, nonverbal cues always represent theirs. This characterizes much of what nonverbal communication is and it allows fostering of mutual understanding; even between individuals who speak different languages.

The last property is that nonverbal signals can be made simultaneously, even as we use language. When we speak, write or sign, we must do it one word at a time. But in nonverbal communication we can use several nonverbal cues simultaneously like body movement, facial expression and the likes to express a message. Because of this, nonverbal cues can either be used to reinforce a single message or even send a mixed signal one.

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

Remland (2000), in his book, mentioned that nonverbal cues have four main functions, namely:

First is the identification function. All animals have a distinct identity, including humans. Their identities must be able to be signaled to others. Because identities play a crucial role in the survival of the humans, they have become an integral part of the communication process. It is thru appearance and behavioral signals in which we are able to communicate to others many things. Many of these signals are inherent since birth, but humans have developed uncanny ways of altering these identities in order to communicate certain messages.

The next function is the relationship function. It is the important task of getting along with others. Nonverbal cues help in the formation of relationships with others in order to survive. Many nonverbal signals are used in order show how intimate a relationship is and who's going to be in control.

The third function is the emotion function. Nonverbal signals are used to let others know how they feel. These signals aid in adaptation to the environment and also it helps communicate intention to others. Most of these signals are belong to intrinsic communication codes but some display of emotions are more like public showings of what we want others to believe therefore they are classified under iconic communication codes.

The last function of Nonverbal Communication is the delivery function. It involves the exchange of information about the outside world. In articles by Andrews University and Segal of, it was cited that under the delivery function of nonverbal communication, nonverbal cues are used to repeat the verbal message, accent the verbal message, complement or dispute the verbal message and may even substitute the verbal message.

Nonverbal Cues and their Cross- Cultural Interpretation

Kinesics quoted the definition of Kinesics from Ray Birdwhistell (1952) as the interpretation of body language; more formally non-verbal behavior related to movement, either of any part of the body or the body as a whole. Kinesics has many classifications, namely:

The first classification under Kinesics is physical posture. The Management Sciences for Health, an organization blah blah , mentioned in an article of theirs about physical posture that in many cultures around the world, it's impolite to show the bottom of the shoe. That's why one should never sit with one foot resting on the opposite knee. Meanwhile in Argentina, standing with hands on the hips means anger or a challenge. Also in many cultures slouching is being disrespectful particularly in Taiwan wherein men sit with both feet firmly on the floor.

The second classification is gestures. Matsumoto in his paper mentioned that David Efron was the pioneer in the study of gestures across cultures when he examined gestures of Sicilian, Lithuanian and Jewish immigrants in New York City. Matsumoto stated that his studies became the roots of the study of culture and gestures. As what Andrews University mentioned in their article, gestures are impossible to catalog. But they are needed to be studied upon because of the following reasons. First is that gestures can be acceptable in one culture but can be rude or offensive in another. Second is that if used improperly, the message might not be interpreted as it was meant to be. And third, without the knowledge of interpretation of gestures in a global context might lead to awkward situations.

In the articles of Steve Darn of the Izmir University, by Andrews University and by the Management Sciences for Health, it was written that the following hand gestures are subject to different cultural interpretations such as the following.

The perfect sign commonly means everything's all right, but in France it means nothing, in Japan it's a symbol for money, in Germany it has a rude meaning and in Malta, Greece and Brazil it has an obscene connotation.

The thumb up sign is also subject to careful usage. Dresser ( ) also attests to this when she mentioned in her book that it commonly means okay, but in Australia, Nigeria and even in most Middle Eastern Countries as well, it has a rude connotation. On the other hand, in Japan in means five and lastly in Turkey it means political rightist party.

The next gesture is pointing. In the US, people point with their index finger, this in Japan is considered rude. They point with their whole hand. People from Germany on the other hand point with their little finger.

The last gesture is the crooked finger. Dresser ( ) stated that in Japan it is an obscene gesture. In Yugoslavia and Malaysia, it is used to call animals. In Indonesia and Australia it is used to beckon prostitutes and in Vietnam, it is used to call inferiors or animals. And lastly in most cultures when this gesture is used between persons of equal status, it is considered as an act of hostility.


Andrews University defined Oculesics or commonly called Eye Contact as the meeting of the eyes between two individuals. Furthermore, and Management Sciences for Health both agree that eye contact is an important channel of interpersonal communication. The use of eye contact is vital in our day to day interactions and is a very powerful nonverbal cue. Studies have found that people use their eyes to indicate their interest.

Matsumoto mentioned in his paper that Watson (1970) classified 30 countries as either a contact culture or a noncontact one. Contact cultures engage in more gazing while noncontact ones had less. Andrews University cited an example of this in one of their articles mentioning that Americans feel uncomfortable with the gaze associated with Arab or Indian communication patterns. Western cultures see direct eye to eye contact as positive. Arabic cultures meanwhile make prolonged eye-contact because in their culture it shows interests and helps them understand truthfulness. Dresser ( ) also attests that Japanese, African, Latin American and Carribean cultures on the other hand avoid eye contact to show respect.