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An important part of intercultural communication is nonverbal communication. Cultures have nonverbal cues they use to communicate, which can have very different meanings between cultures. The difference between high context and low context cultures, how nonverbal communication is used, and how nonverbal communication differs between cultures is important to study when learning how to communicate effectively. Becoming proficient in intercultural communication can help people become better communicators and lessen the amount of misunderstandings when communicating with people of different cultures.
Nonverbal communication is an essential part of any natural language. Subtle nuances of a facial expression or a movement can change the entire meaning of a message. The first thing to consider is whether a culture is high context or low context. In high context cultures like in Japan, Greece and Arab nations, communication tends to be direct, physical space is considered more communal and verbal messages are more indirect. In low context cultures like the United States and Germany, communication tends to be linear, dramatic and open. Privacy and personal space are highly valued and verbal messages are explicit and direct and words are valued over their context (Bernstein, 2017).
High context cultures look for meaning in what is not said. This is achieved through by looking at body language, silences and pauses. Relationships build slowly and depend on trust. Productivity depends on relationships and group process (Southeastern University). Low context cultures are rule orientated, communication is shorter, and everything is task-centered. Relationships begin and end quickly and one’s identity is rooted in oneself and one’s accomplishment (mqjeffrey, 2016). It is essential for a person to be able to adapt to a high or low context culture’s way of communicating to be effective in the interaction. Without the skill to recognize how an interaction is occurring, misunderstandings are bound to happen.
Nonverbal communication is used to enhance verbal communication. There are many types of nonverbal communication such as eye contact, facial expression, touch, hand movement and gestures (Bajracharya, 2018). Nonverbal communication varies between cultures and is learned between members as a natural part of their language. Because these cues are derived from different cultures, misunderstanding can happen when inter-cultural people communicate. Eye contact differs between cultures. In Western society, eye contact is considered perfectly acceptable and shows you are paying attention. In high-context cultures, eye contact is considered rude and offensive. Especially in eastern cultures, “women should never have eye contact with men as it shows power or sexual interest” (Bajracharya, 2018).
Gestures are a very important way to convey information that verbal communication can’t. They vary between cultures. Edward Sapir, famous linguist and noted for his extensive study on non-verbal communication states “we respond to gestures with an extreme alertness, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all” (Samovar, 229). Although gestures may see to be universal, they are far from it. One example would be the gesture “come here” which uses an index finger to curled upwards to signal a person to walk towards you. In Asian cultures, this is only used to summon dogs and if you do this directly to a person in the Philippines, you can be arrested (Cipolla, 2018).
Facial expressions have been called the “universal language of emotion” but people from different cultures perceive them very differently (APA, 2011). In the past, research has stated that facial expressions are universal but new research is showing this is not the case. There was a study conducted by Rachael E. Jack, PhD from the University of Glasgow on “East Asians and Western Caucasians differ in terms of the features they think constitute an angry face or a happy face”. Fifteen Chinese people and 15 Caucasians living in Glasgow took part in the study. They found that “Chinese participants relied on the eyes more to represent facial expressions which Western Caucasians relied on the mouth and eyebrows…These cultural distinctions could lead to missed cues or misrepresented signals about emotion during cross-cultural communication” (APA, 2011).
Touch is another important factor for nonverbal communication. “Throughout the intercultural communication literature, researches have considered North European and American Societies as tactually non-contact” (McDaniel, E, Anderson, P.A 1998). Latin Americans are different, as hugging and handshakes are normal in their culture. Islamic and Hindu cultures typically do not touch with the left hand. Islamic cultures have strict guidelines on touching the opposite sex but touching someone of the same-sex is acceptable. Asian cultures tend to never touch anyone on the head (Tidwell, C.)
There are many instances of communication breakdown due to nonverbal cues. In general, “65 to 75 percent of all communication is nonverbal in nature” (Contreras-Schwartz). In American business, it is customary to maintain eye contact during a job interview to show your interest. If an applicant is from a high context culture, they may not make eye contact which would result in the loss of an employment opportunity because of a cultural miscommunication. Also, making assumptions about other patterns of non-verbal communication can cause problems as well. African Americans have different communication patterns than Caucasians. African Americans generally communicate more passionately and animated, as it is part of their culture to assume “if you believe in it, you will advocate for it. Truth is established though argument and debate” (Elliott, C. E, 1999). A Caucasian person may interpret this behavior as intimidating or forceful, causing a communication breakdown.
Nonverbal communication is an essential part of communication in any culture. But, different cultures perceive nonverbal communication in very individual ways. High context and low context cultures have very different norms. As discussed, facial expressions, gestures, touch and eye contact are not universal. Maintaining eye contact in China is insulting, where eye contact is a sign of respect and listening in Western culture. Hugging a non-relative or business partner is normal in Latin American countries where in Western culture, it is not always appropriate or welcomed. Crossing cultural boundaries can have serious cultural implications. A person wanting to study intercultural communication needs to understand the complexities behind nonverbal communication to be an effective communicator. Learning how to adapt to different culture’s communication styles will help improve communication and lead to less misunderstandings, overall. It is imperative that everyone study nonverbal communication between cultures, so we can understand each other in a more comprehensive way and respect others culture and traditions.
- American Psychological Association. (1, September 2011). “Perception of Facial Expressions Differ Across Cultures”. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/09/facial-expressions
- Bajracharya, Shraddah. (6, January 2018). “Nonverbal Communication in Different Cultures”. Retrieved from https://www.businesstopia.net/communication/non-verbal-communication-different-cultures
- Bernstein, Rebecca. (28, March 2017). “7 Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication”. Retrieved from https://online.pointpark.edu/business/cultural-differences-in-nonverbal-communication/
- Cipolla, Luciano. (6, September 2018). “Hand gestures in different cultures (and what they mean). Retrieved from https://blog.busuu.com/what-hand-gestures-mean-in-different-countries/
- Conteras-Schwartz. (n.d). “Nonverbal Communication with Workplace Interactions”. Retrieved from https://smallbusiness.chron.com/nonverbal-communication-workplace-interactions-844.html
- Elliott, C.WE. (1999). “Communication Patterns and Assumptions of Differing Cultural Groups in the United States”. Retrieved from https://www.lpi.usra.edu/education/lpsc_wksp_2007/resources/elliott.pdf
- McDaniel, E. & Andersen, P.A. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior (1998) 22: 59. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1022952509743
- Mqjeffery. (21, April 2016). “High-Context vs. Low-Context Communication”. Retrieved from https://toughnickel.com/business/High-Context-vs-Low-Context-Communication
- Samovar, L.A., Porter, R.E., McDaniel, E.R., & Roy, C.S. (2012). Intercultural Communication: A Reader (14th ed.). Boston, MA
- Southeastern University. (18, August 2016). “Intercultural Communication: High and Low-Context Cultures”. Retrieved from https://online.seu.edu/articles/high-and-low-context-cultures/
- Tidwell, C. (n.d). “Non-Verbal Communication Modes”. Retrieved from https://www.andrews.edu/~tidwell/bsad560/NonVerbal.html
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