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Good communication is essential for every relationship. It is the most important element when bonding with someone as it allows us to share our ideas, interests, concerns, to support each other, to organize our lives, to work together and everything you can think of. Effective communication is based heavily on how we talk and listen, on the way we respond and on our body language. Words are not enough to establish an exciting and secure connection with someone else because some things cannot be expressed with words, although that can be confusing and misleading at times. Despite that, nonverbal communication is an important tool for confident socializing when words are simply not enough.
While we communicate we can express a lot without speaking. Our body, its posture, the tone of voice, the intonation, our facial expressions and many more, all display a message. Nonverbal communication is as complex if not more so than verbal communication. It is defined as the certain ways that a person communicates his/her thoughts and meaning without actually saying anything. From our handshakes to our hairstyles, nonverbal details paint the picture of who we are and influence the way we relate to other people. These non-verbal details are experienced and utilized by every one of us and they can help or impair the clear understanding of one's message. However, the most common ones are: body movements (kinesics) , personal space (proxemics), time (chronemics), touch (haptics), voice (paralanguage), artifacts, which include clothing, hairstyle, art, furniture, jewelry, etc; and physical appearance. According to Albert Mehrabian, the total impact of the messages we convey is 7 % verbal, 38 % vocal and 55 % non-verbal. This is known as "the 7% - 38% - 55% rule". Another research by the social anthropologist E.T. Hall shows that in a normal conversation between two persons, less than 35% of the social meanings is actually transmitted by words. So, at least 65 % of it is conveyed through the body. This statistics proves that non-verbal communication is an essential mean of expressing ourselves. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of verbal communication and it is hard to imagine them exist separately.
It is important for us to be aware of the nonverbal aspects of communication so that we can control them since they play such a big role in our everyday lives. Nonverbal communication can be intentional and unintentional (also called accidental). "Observing a friend approaching, you offer a broad smile as part of your greeting. This is an intentional act. Yet nonverbal messages are most often produced without a conscious awareness that they may have meaning for other people. These are unintentional messages. For example, frowning because the sun is in your eyes may make someone mistakenly believe you are angry; looking upset after receiving a phone call could make a person approaching you think that you're unhappy to see him or her; and touching someone's hand for an extended time could cause that person to think you are flirting when that was not your intent. These are all examples of how your actions, unintentionally, can send messages to others." (Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, Edwin R. McDaniel. Communication between cultures, 8th edition: 271) Such misinterpretations are very common and the situation is further complicated by the fact that one and the same signal can have different meanings, depending on one's cultural, religious or family background.
Kinesics, or body language, is the most important part of the non-verbal communication, It includes facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and posture. You don't need to be a certified anthropologist with a background knowledge of what every human gesture means, nor do you have to dress and act like one to quickly recognize the importance of a basic smile. Body language as a whole is extremely important for face-to-face interaction. Facial expressions are constantly changing while we speak and are always observed and interpreted by the receiver. There are six facial expressions which are considered cultural universals: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness according to Darwin's universality hypothesis, but new research carried by a team from Glasgow University shows that people from different cultures perceive them in unique ways. In the study, East Asian participants focused mostly on the eyes and Western Caucasian participants scanned the whole face. The research shows that the Easterners used a culturally specific decoding method which couldn't distinguish adequately the universal facial expressions of fear and disgust.It concluded that information from the eyes is not clear in these expressions, with consequences for cross-cultural communication and globalisation.The researchers also point out that this difference in perception is reflected in the differences between Eastern and Western emoticons - the typographical characters used to express emotions in computer-mediated communication.The Eastern emoticons are the right way up and focus on the eyes, whilst in the West the mouth is important: for example, [ :( ] in the West and [ (T_T) ] in the East. Thus, understanding and effective application of nonverbal communication skills is becoming increasingly important in the modern world of globalization.
Gestures are movements made with a limb, especially the hands and are constantly used in oral discourse. As often being culture-specific, they may mean something positive in one culture, but something highly offensive in another. With the influence of TV and movies some gestures have become more widely known but still they are not universal so if we want to enjoy friendly international relationships we should try to be aware of and to understand these specific differences. A frequent example of such gestures is the sign in which one touches one's index finger and thumb, forming the letter "O". In USA and many European countries it means "OK", "good", but French would recognize it as "zero", Japanese as "money". In other countries as Greece, Turkey, Malta, Brazil, Russia this sign can be considered a sexual insult.
Another example of such popular gesture which is interpreted in different ways is the "thumb-up" gesture which in many countries has the same meaning as the previous sign - "OK". To some European countries it means "number 1" since when they count they begin with the thumb for 1 and the little finger for 5. Asians and Americans normally count starting from the index finger for number 1 and end on the thumb for number 5. Again in Greece and also in Iran, Sardinia, some parts of South America this gesture is extremely insulting.
Many western cultures make the index and middle fingers crossed gesture when wishing for good luck. It is even the logo for the UK's National Lottery. In Vietnam, however, this is an obscene gesture, especially when done while looking at or addressing another person. The crossed fingers are said to resemble female genitals.
Raising your index and little fingers usually stands for "rock & roll" but in Italy it
means that a man is cheating on his wife.
Americans use their index finger to point at things, Germans usually use their little finger, while pointing with a single finger is considered rude in many Asian countries, where they use their whole hand.
If we don't understand the nonverbal communication of a different culture, it is possible that we make a mistake of reading the other person incorrectly. We should try avoiding misunderstanding others' by learning the non-verbal behavior of their culture.gestures1.jpg
Eye contact is an essential part of nonverbal communication as it can convey many things such as interest, hostility, attraction or affection. Whilst most of the Western countries see eye contact as a positive signal, in certain parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America avoiding it is the way to show respect. In the Middle East eye contact with a person from the opposite sex is almost forbidden due to their religious views.
According to the anthropologist E.T. Hall, proxemics is the study of our "perception and use of space". We all have an area around ourselves where we feel comfortable, our "personal bubble" and we don't want it to be invaded by other people without our consent. E.T. Hall described four levels of social distance in different situations: intimate distance (0-18 inches) occurring during more intimate interaction like whispering, hugging, touching; personal distance ( 1.5 - 4 feet) for family members and close friends; social distance (4-12 feet) for acquaintances and public distance (12 - 25+ feet) for public speaking situations. Appropriate distance varies around the world. Latin, Arab and Mediterranean cultures are considered high-contact cultures and usually maintain shorter distances in conversations. On the other hand, low-contact cultures such as Scandinavians and Asians are more comfortable with a larger amount of personal space. speech.distance.gif
Being aware about what is respectable in different cultures is important to guide individuals to an understanding of one another no matter where they came from. We have to learn about the "silent language" of the other cultures in order to avoid distortion of the meaning in communication as communication plays a vital role in our lives. Accepting cultural differences is the key for building and maintaining healthy, friendly relationships. Once we embrace these differences we will stop seeing them as a hinder in our communication with others.