Nonverbal communication is the way we talk, without talking, and whether it is realized or not, every human being in the world speaks this language. Non-verbal communication is an “accent” to the verbal part of language, and can be done in various ways. Although every person in the world expresses him/herself with nonverbal communication, it does not mean every person in the world speaks the same language. This paper will focus on several aspects of nonverbal communication that can be found throughout the world, and comparing those looks, gestures, body positioning and appearances with those typically found in North American.
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As previously mentioned, nonverbal communication is typically thought of as how an individual may look at others or gesture with their body, but generally speaking, the first form of non-verbal communication being projected, and subsequently translated, is that of an individual’s overall appearance. Deciphering an individual’s wardrobe is typically based upon previous experiences with individuals who have been dressed in a similar fashion. For example, while walking through a mall, one encounters a tall, lanky, high school teenage boy. His hair is black and brushed across his eyes. His complexion is pale, he is wearing very dark, baggy clothes in addition to dark eyeliner and heavy, metal face jewelry.
Based upon someone’s previous experiences with this type of individual, they may immediately translate his appearance to mean, “keep away from me; I don’t want to talk with anyone and I am not your friend.” However, another individual may have had different experiences with individuals dressed in this manner, and may be deciphering the non-verbal communication as, “I’m confused â€¦ I don’t know where I am going â€¦ I need help.” A person’s previous experiences, may either cause an individual to avoid the teenager by either ducking into a random store or walk past quickly, while directing their to the floor, or contrariwise, look at the boy and smile, offering silent encouragement. It is unknown at this point whether or not this is an individual to be avoided or someone to be helped.
Therefore, past experiences can have an impact on how one may perceive others, simply based upon how they are dressed. Understanding the different opinions that can arise from such a simple example as the boy in the mall, one might ask, “Should we judge a book by its cover?” The young man may actually have modified his appearance because he felt it made him look more attractive. He may have watched the “Twilight” movie series and felt this to be the way he should dress in order to attract the opposite sex. If this is the case, then we can expect to find similar appearance-altering practices in other cultures.
As with the young man in the mall, there are many examples of appearance-altering behaviors in other cultures that may seem unusual or even bizarre to those in the United States (U.S.). Like the U.S., the appearance alterations performed within other cultures may be perceived as beautiful and possibly an indication of social status. A good example is that of foot binding in China, also known as “Lotus Feet.” Foot binding has been done for thousands of years in China, thought to be a means of keeping women from abandoning husbands and family. Binding begins with a baby girl, conforming her foot muscles and bones to be able to fit in very tiny shoes. Though the feet may appear small and delicate, the woman’s ability to walk is greatly inhibited and leads to medical complications later in life. This practice is still done in some parts of China today, and is thought to depict wealth and a delicate demeanor.
Other examples of beauty include the Mangbettu women of Africa who have their heads very tightly wrapped during childhood, thereby elongating the skull; the Mayans who would strap boards on each side of children’s heads so that their skulls would be flattened; and finally, the Burmese women, whom put one-inch thick rings around their necks to make them longer.
Based upon preconceived notions, cultural norms and possibly ignorance, it can be easy for individuals to misunderstand the non-verbal communication of appearance. It may not always be easy for people to remember that what may be “foreign” to those in the U.S. is another culture’s normal.
Almost everyone knows the story of President George H. W. Bush in Australia, in which he intended to make what is known as the “peace sign” in the U.S., toward people gathered to protest his visit. Unfortunately, he made the gesture the “wrong way” causing great furor in the Australian tabloids. Now this case was a simple mistake, but none-the-less a mistake. Gestures are not something to be taken lightly; the wrong “signal” at the wrong time, directed toward individuals of a different culture, could get you into some big trouble in a handful of countries.
Gestures are the “accent” to verbal communication. Due to the fact that one wrong gesture could hurt you, I will give various examples of gestures from different cultures. I will describe their action and then their meaning compared to North American translation.
In Ethiopia there are two gestures for “silence.” A woman will put one finger to her mouth when directing silence to a child, but will put four fingers to her mouth when directing silence to an adult. Four fingers are used towards adults because one finger is disrespectful. Another one-finger act is that of tapping the forefinger to the side of the nose. In some cultures, it signals secrecy or confidentiality. But in the United Kingdom, Holland, and Austria, if the tap is on the front of the nose it quite frankly means, “Mind your own business.”
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The “OK” gesture, it means okay right? In America and England, yes, but, in Japan it means money. In Latin American and France it is an insult, most commonly known as “flipping the bird.” In Australia it means Zero, and in Germany it may mean either “a job well done” or, an offensive insult, depending on which region you visit. In Turkey, if someone directs the “OK” sign at you, they are referring to you as a homosexual!
The next gesture is one that is relatively familiar, the “V” for victory sign. In the U.S., the ‘victory’ symbol was expressed by raising the index and middle finger in the form of ‘V’ and bending the third and fourth finger to touch the tip of the thumb. This symbol was popularized by Richard Nixon in America. The ‘V’ sign is considered rude in Italy and if you are showing the outside of your hand, then it is a form insult, which is established in Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (Sengupta 2010).
To beckon someone, is to signal them to come towards you. In America the beckoning signal is the palm up with all of the fingers together except the index finger. You then begin to make a curling motion with your index finger towards you. In China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and in the Philippines, that particular motion is used only for animals. In these countries, the beckoning signal is placing your palm downward and curls the fingers in a scratching motion towards your body.
The crossed-finger gesture, (good luck in America) has several other meanings. In Turkey when the crossed fingers are directed to an individual it is the breaking of a friendship. In other cultures it is used to seal/swear an oath to someone.
Each of these gestures we recognize and fully understand the gain, and consequences of their actions. But what we have learned is that little, to none of our gestures meant the same in any other cultures.
Nonverbal communication can be a tricky language to decipher. It is expressed in the way a person appears (dresses) and various body gestures. How this nonverbal communication is interpreted is generally based upon an individual’s past experiences and cultural norms. Therefore, it is good advice for anyone seeking to make their livelihood as a communicator in a global marketplace, that they not only understand the nonverbal communication nuances of their own culture, but to educate themselves in the nonverbal forms of communication of other cultures.
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