Non-Verbal Commuication Modes
Note:  The following are teaching notes that I made available for students in BSAD560, Intercultural Business Relations, a graduate course offered as an elective in the MBA program at Andrews University.  If you find this material useful, you may used it for non-commercial purposes such as teaching, intercultural training seminars, etc.  In such cases, provide an appropriate academic citation to Dr Charles Tidwell, Dean Emeritus, Andrews University.

In addition, these notes have been translated as noted below.  If you desire to translate these notes into another language and wish to have this noted here, please let me know.

Estonian by Sonja Kulmala:

Polish vy Weronika Pawlak:

What is non-verbal communication? Why is non-verbal communication important?

Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication

  1. General Appearance and Dress
  2. All cultures are concerned for how they look and make judgements based on looks and dress.  Americans, for instance, appear almost obsessed with dress and personal attractiveness.  Consider differing cultural standards on what is attractive in dress and on what constitutes modesty. Note ways dress is used as a sign of status?

  1. Body Movement
  2. We send information on attitude toward person (facing or leaning towards another), emotional statue (tapping fingers, jiggling coins), and desire to control the environment (moving towards or away from a person).

    More than 700,000 possible motions we can make — so impossible to categorize them all!  But just need to be aware the body movement and position is a key ingredient in sending messages.

  3. Posture
  4. Consider the following actions and note cultural differences:

    • Bowing (not done, criticized, or affected in US; shows rank in Japan)
    • Slouching (rude in most Northern European areas)
    • Hands in pocket (disrespectful in Turkey)
    • Sitting with legs crossed (offensive in Ghana, Turkey)
    • Showing soles of feet. (Offensive in Thailand, Saudi Arabia)
    • Even in US, there is a gender difference on acceptable posture?

  5. Gestures
  6. Impossible to catalog them all.  But need to recognize: 1) incredible possibility and variety and 2) that an acceptable in one’s own culture may be offensive in another.  In addition, amount of gesturing varies from culture to culture.  Some cultures are animated; other restrained.  Restrained cultures often feel animated cultures lack manners and overall restraint.  Animated cultures often feel restrained cultures lack emotion or interest.

    Even simple things like using hands to point and count differ.

    Pointing : US with index finger; Germany with little finger; Japanese with entire hand (in fact most Asians consider pointing with index finger to be rude)

    Counting:  Thumb = 1 in Germany, 5 in Japan, middle finger for 1 in Indonesia.

  7. Facial Expressions
  8. While some say that facial expressions are identical, meaning attached to them differs.  Majority opinion is that these do have similar meanings world-wide with respect to smiling, crying, or showing anger, sorrow, or disgust.  However, the intensity varies from culture to culture.  Note the following:

    • Many Asian cultures suppress facial expression as much as possible.
    • Many Mediterranean (Latino / Arabic) cultures exaggerate grief or sadness while most American men hide grief or sorrow.
    • Some see “animated” expressions as a sign of a lack of control.
    • Too much smiling is viewed in as a sign of shallowness.
    • Women smile more than men.

  9. Eye Contact and Gaze
  10. In USA, eye contact indicates: degree of attention or interest, influences attitude change or persuasion, regulates interaction, communicates emotion, defines power and status, and has a central role in managing impressions of others.

    • Western cultures — see direct eye to eye contact as positive (advise children to look a person in the eyes).  But within USA, African-Americans use more eye contact when talking and less when listening with reverse true for Anglo Americans.  This is a possible cause for some sense of unease between races in US.  A prolonged gaze is often seen as a sign of sexual interest.
    • Arabic cultures make prolonged eye-contact. — believe it shows interest and helps them understand truthfulness of the other person.  (A person who doesn’t reciprocate is seen as untrustworthy)
    • Japan, Africa, Latin American, Caribbean — avoid eye contact to show respect.

  11. Touch
  12. Question: Why do we touch, where do we touch, and what meanings do we assign when someone else touches us?

      Illustration: An African-American male goes into a convenience store recently taken over by new Korean immigrants.  He gives a $20 bill for his purchase to Mrs Cho who is cashier and waits for his change.  He is upset when his change is put down on the counter in front of him.

      What is the problem?  Traditional Korean (and many other Asian countries) don’t touch strangers., especially between members of the opposite sex.   But the African-American sees this as another example of discrimination (not touching him because he is black).

    Basic answer:  Touch is culturally determined!  But each culture has a clear concept of what parts of the body one may not touch.  Basic message of touch is to affect or control  — protect, support, disapprove (i.e. hug, kiss, hit, kick).  

    • USA — handshake is common (even for strangers), hugs, kisses for those of opposite gender or of family (usually) on an increasingly  more intimate basis. Note differences between African-Americans and Anglos in USA.  Most African Americans touch on greeting but are annoyed if touched on the head (good boy, good girl overtones).
    • Islamic and Hindu:  typically don’t touch with the left hand.  To do so is a social insult.  Left hand is for toilet functions.  Mannerly in India to break your bread only with your right hand (sometimes difficult for non-Indians)
    •  Islamic cultures generally don’t approve of any touching between genders (even hand shakes).  But consider such touching (including hand holding, hugs) between same-sex to be appropriate.
    • Many Asians don’t touch the head (Head houses the soul and a touch puts it in jeopardy).

    Basic patterns: Cultures (English , German, Scandinavian, Chinese, Japanese) with high emotional restraint concepts have little public touch; those which encourage emotion (Latino, Middle-East, Jewish) accept frequent touches.

  13. Smell
    • USA — fear of offensive natural smells (billion dollar industry to mask objectionable odors with what is perceived to be pleasant ) — again connected with “attractiveness” concept.
    • Many other cultures consider natural body odors as normal (Arabic).
    • Asian cultures (Filipino, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Indian) stress frequent bathing — and often criticize USA of not bathing often enough!

  15. Paralanguage
    • vocal characterizers (laugh, cry, yell, moan, whine, belch, yawn).  These send different messages in different cultures (Japan — giggling indicates embarrassment; India – belch indicates satisfaction)
    • vocal qualifiers (volume, pitch, rhythm, tempo, and tone).  Loudness indicates strength in Arabic cultures and softness indicates weakness; indicates confidence and authority to the Germans,; indicates impoliteness to the Thais; indicates loss of control to the Japanese. (Generally, one learns not to “shout” in Asia for nearly any reason!).  Gender based as well: women tend to speak higher and more softly than men.
    • vocal segregates (un-huh, shh, uh, ooh, mmmh, humm, eh, mah, lah).  Segregates indicate formality, acceptance, assent, uncertainty.