Nonverbal communication and cross-cultural diversity
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Nonverbal communication and cross-cultural diversity


Language studies traditionally have emphasized verbal and written language, but in the late dozens of years have begun to consider communication that takes place without words. In some types of communication people express more nonverbally than verbally. It has been said that communication is only 20 percent verbal while the rest is intonation, body language. The fact remains that mastering vocabulary and grammar is only the beginning of effective communication (John Mole, 2003). Speaking is just one mode of communication. Research suggests that nonverbal communication is more important in understanding human behavior than words and the nonverbal “channels” seem to be more powerful than what people say. Moreover, body language varies from country to country. In different countries people greet each other differently, look at each other’s face for different lengths of time and display affection differently (John M. Wiemann, Rendall P. Harrison, 1983). Much of our nonverbal behavior like culture tends to be frequently beyond our awareness. In this essay I will introduce the nonverbal communication differences in different cultures and its importance to study the body language of one culture. I will concentrate in describing such elements of nonverbal communication across cultures as following: Posture, Gesture, Greetings, Facial expressions, Eye contact, Touch, Appearance and Spatial behavior.


Universal emotions, such as happiness, fear, and sadness are expressed in a similar nonverbal way throughout the world. People believe that shoulder shrug was universal for an inability to do something or innocence. Nodding and shaking the head almost always means “yes” and “no”. A smile is universally involuntary reaction to joy, contentment, or gratification. Something that we may assume are universally understood may not be.


The range of stable human postures is very large, about, 1000 according to the anthropologist Hewes (1957) who has studied the postures used in different human cultures. Posture can be the focus of definite social rules. The Japanese recognize three levels of deference in bowing, up to 45, and sometimes use bowing machines for instruction (Michael Argyle, 1996). Sitting posture is a constant source of cultural misunderstanding. In the United States, where being casual and friendly is valued, people often fall into chairs, even put their feet on their desks, sometimes just sit on the carpeted floor, or slouch when they stand. In hurts nobody in this case. But the same posture may cause serious conflicts when it is transferred to another culture setting. People in the Arab culture believe that the soles are the lowest part of the body, they should never be pointed in the direction of another person, otherwise, it is an insult to others. In many countries, such as Germany Sweden and China, where lifestyles tend to be more formal, slouching is considered a sign of rudeness and poor manners.


It is true that there are many gestures which are unique to particular areas, and meaningless in others (Michael Argyle, 1996). According to Ekman and Friesen´s definition, an emblem can be interchanged with an equivalent verbal form (Adam Kendon, 1980). Emblems are gestures which have a direct verbal translation, like head-nods, beckoning, and pointing. For example, in China, to beckon someone, the palm faces downward and the fingers are moved in a scratching motion. People should avoid using the index finger, palm up and toward you, in a back forth curling motion toward your body. That gesture is used only for animals and can be considered rude. The open hand is used for pointing (not just one or two fingers) Also communicating with Chinese people one should avoid using feet to gesture or to move or touch other objects because the feet are considered lowly and dirty. The same applies to Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese cultures. In Philippines, instead of pointing to an object, people shift their eyes toward it, or purse the lips and point with the mouth unlike in the United States and many European countries where people point to objects and even at people with index finger. However, Germans point with the little finger, and the Japanese point with the entire hand, palms up. In much of Asia, pointing with the index finger is considered rude and can be insulting. In China when people want to signal someone to come, they do this by shaking a hand with a palm turning downward. For many Europeans this may be the gesture to wave goodbye. In the United States and Europe when a person wants to signal a friend to come, he or she makes the gesture with one hand, palm up, fingers more or less together and moving toward his or her body. For many Arabs, nonverbally asking someone to “come here” is performed by holding the right hand out, palm upward, and opening and closing the hand.


Greetings vary a lot between cultures (Michael Argyle, 1996). Perhaps the most common way to greet someone in Western countries is a hand-shake. However, handshakes differ around the world. The hearty, hand-pumping handshake is a North American/Northern European tradition. In most of the world, handshakes are more like handclasps. The „grip“ is never tight, and there is little or no pumping action. Like customs everywhere, incresed cross-cultural interaction brings about changes in habits; many Asian
businesspeople have accommodated to the American handshaking tradition. On the other hand, it is very likely that in many situations bowing would still be the only polite move to make, especially in Japan. The person in the inferior position always bows longer and lower (Norine Dresser, 1996). Those from India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh use the namaste for both greeting and farewells and a sign of respect. They do this by holding their hands chest-high in a praylike position, then slightly nod the head, but they do not bow. Thais have similar greetings, but they call it wai. While body contact is generally taboo in most Asian countries, elsewhere, body contact is expected; shying away from contact gives off negative signals. For example, greeting most Latinos body contact should be expected. Hugging and kissing on the cheek are acceptable for both the same sex and opposite sex. The abrazo is commonplace – friends embrace and simultaneously pat each other on the back. When greeting, most people from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and other Mediterranean countries expect to be kissed on both cheeks. When greeting, most Middle Easterners, especially Muslims, body contact should be avoided with the opposite sex, but men may embrace and kiss one another. When shaking hands, men should avoid puling their hands away too quickly. T Collet (1983) found a very interesting greeting among the Mossi in West Africa. In the “pousi-pousi”, used for greeting the ruler, people lie on the ground, beating their forehead in the dust, and drumming their elbows on the ground.


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