The Role of Nonverbal Elements in Intercultural Communication

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    Sep 28, 2012
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Cross-cultural communication can be verbal and non-verbal. Verbal communication is spoken communication.  It includes the use of words and intonation in order to convey meaning. “Silent”, or nonverbal communication includes the use of gestures, postures, positions, facial expressions, eye contacts and conversational distance.  Just as verbal language differs from culture to culture, the nonverbal language may also differ. If we don`t understand the nonverbal communication from different culture, it is possible that we misunderstand the other person. Without realizing the importance of nonverbal communication concepts, a real communication may not be conducted successfully. 

When we stay in another country, we should not only know the spoken language itself.  We should also be equipped with the knowledge of the country`s culture because it hides much more than it reveals.  Some forms of nonverbal signals are universal and they have the same meaning. On the other hand, there are non verbal behaviors which have meaning in one culture, but no meaning in another culture. We can also find nonverbal behaviors which exist in several cultures, but which have different meanings in these cultures.  We express our emotions and attitudes more nonverbally than verbally. That`s why nonverbal communication is very important and its importance is multiplied across cultures. Nowadays it`s much easier to communicate with other cultures, because the world is globalized. Globalization brings each of us into greater contact with the rest of the world. It also gives our daily lives an increasingly international orientation. Internet, TV and other mediums give us information about other cultures. To successfully live and work in this global community, we must become more culturally aware and learn how to be effective intercultural communicators.

            There are many cultural variations in nonverbal communication. Different cultures use different systems of understanding facial expressions, colors, gestures, spacial relations, touch, silence, physical appearance and treatment of time.

Even though some facial expressions may be similar across cultures, their interpretations are specific in some cultures. These differences of interpretation may lead to conflict. In Japan when someone dies in family, they smile. That means that they are in grief. For a Westerner this smile may seem cold under the circumstances. In Asian cultures smiling is used to cover emotional pain. Americans think that direct eye contact expresses honesty. On the other hand, the Japanese avoid eye contact as a sign of disrespect. Generally, people frown or cry when they are sad or angry. But the  Chinese, the Japanese and the Indonesians are more subdued. In Arab and Iranian cultures, people express sadness and anger openly and they shout and mourn very loudly. Differences in actual expression of emotion occur across cultures due to cultural differences in the association between events and the experience of particular emotion. For instance, some cultures emphasize individuality and encourage intense emotional response to events that threaten individuality. Other cultures emphasize the collective and are likely to share  emotional response accordingly.

Different cultures assign different meanings to colors. In China red signifies wealth but in France and in the United Kingdom it symbolizes masculinity. On the other hand, the Japanese give to red the meaning of anger and in many African countries this color means death or blasphemy. The United States give to green color the meaning of  capitalism and envy. In Ireland, it signifies patriotism , in Egypt strength and fertility and among the Japanese it signifies energy and youth. In Europe, black color mostly means death. However, in parts of Malaysia, this color signifies courage. In much of Europe, in the United States and in many Muslim and Hindu countries, white color is the symbol of purity and peace. On the contrary, in Japan and other Asian countries, it symbolizes death and mourning. In Iran, blue is a symbol of something negative,. In Egypt it means truth and virtue and in Ghana it is a sign of happiness. Yellow color symbolizes richness and authority  in China and joy and wealth in Egypt.  In the United States yellow is a symbol of lack of courage and caution. I have only written about some of various meanings of colors in different cultures.

There are a lot of examples of nonverbal gestures which have different meanings in different cultures.  The “Ring” or “OK” gesture indicates “Everything is OK” in English speaking countries. In Japan it can mean money.  In France it can be interpreted as zero or nothing. In Indonesia this gesture also means zero. This gesture is used in some Mediterranean countries to imply that a man is homosexual. In the United States, beckoning people to come with the palm is acceptable. But in some parts of Latin America and in Korea and in many other countries, this gesture is considered very rude.

Another variable across cultures is about ways of relating to space. People all over our planet have very different attitudes towards polite space for conversation and negotiations. Europeans stand more closely with each other when talking because they are accustomed to smaller personal spaces.  On the other hand, North Americans, who  usually have spacious houses and gardens, prefer a large amount of space. They may regard attempts to get closer as pushy or aggressive.  Europeans   stand or sit close when they are talking to another and they may see the other`s attempt to create more space as evidence of coldness and lack of interest. Most South Americans and Mexicans like to stand very close to the person they are talking to. Backing away is considered impolite. Line-waiting behavior is also related to space and it is culturally-influenced. The English and U.S. Americans are serious about standing in lines. The French, the Italians and the Mexicans, have difficulties to adjust to a system of waiting in line.

Touching also varies from one culture to another. Crossing cultures, we encounter different ideas about touching.  An American shakes your hand firmly. In many parts of Asia there is no physical contact at all.  The Japanese avoid touching between strangers. They bow instead, and the more respect they want to show, the deeper they should bow.  Physical contact is also avoided in Thailand. The greeting is made by pressing both hands together at the chest, as if you are praying. On the contrary, southern Europeans often hug and kiss when they meet. Anglo-Saxons touch one another much less than southern Europeans. All in all, Middle Easterners, Latin Americans and southern Europeans touch one another while talking much more than people from Asia and northern Europe.

The role of silence is perceived differently in different cultures as well. Unlike  most of the population across the world, the Apache are silent for hours when courting. They generally talk very little and only after a couple has been dating for several months they will start to talk more often. These periods of silence  are a sign of shyness. The use of silence is very important for Apache women, who are generally discouraged from having long conversations with their boyfriends. To many Apache  silence is a symbol of modesty. When strangers work with the Apache, the Apache don`t introduce them to their compatriots. After the period of several days, they start the conversation if they conclude that the other person is all right. Unlike southern Europeans and Latin Americans, who shout and quarrel with their children when they are disobedient, people from Iran give their children the silent treatment when they disobey them. In this country, adults don`t argue. On the contrary, they may not be on speaking terms for very long of periods of times.

In some ways business dress is universal around the world, still there are differences. Europeans love to wear suits that are more tailored and youthful. The Japanese tend to wear grey or dark blue suits with white shirts. Arabs often wear traditional clothes, the white flowing robe and the headdress. In Western societies women wear dresses, skirts and high- heeled shoes because they want to look attractive. In Asian and Muslim countries, women shouldn`t reveal the body. They wear long-sleeved blouses and skirts below the knee and this way of dressing symbolizes modesty. In Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Iran you should take off your shoes and place them neatly together facing the door when entering a house or a restaurant.

In the United States people often feel rushed, because they want to be successful, rich and happy. Time decides when the Americans make their appointments, when they do they work and when they rest. The Japanese live lives that are run by time as well. However, they feel less rushed and nervous. The Japanese respect time because of their low tolerance for laziness and postpone. Northern Europeans schedule one thing at a time. On the contrary, southern Europeans and Latin Americans, schedule a number of things at the same time.

As the global community integrate, all of us, willingly or unwillingly, have to  try to respect and  understand different cultures. Intercultural communication occurs whenever a person from one culture sends verbal or nonverbal message to be processed by a person from a different culture. These may seem simple and undemanding. However it requires a thorough understanding of two key ingredients-communication and culture. Therefore, we have to examine communication and its various components. Then, culture is explained. Finally, we explore how these two concepts are fused into intercultural communication. Globalization is changing the world radically. It is fundamentally changing every aspect of our lives from the way we behave when we are abroad to the way we define our own culture. The spread of globalization is opening doors for human development and better understanding. It has remarkably influenced all cultures.

The examples which I have described represent differences related to nonverbal communication. They are only the tip of the iceberg. Careful observation, ongoing study from a variety of sources, and cultivating relationships across cultures will all help develop the cultural fluency to work effectively with nonverbal communication differences. Cultures also attribute different degrees of importance to nonverbal behavior. People from the United States and Canada tend to give less emphasis to nonverbal communication.  In some countries, such as Japan and Columbia,  understanding the nonverbal components of communication is more important to receiving the intended meaning of the communication as a whole.

The differences of interpretation of nonverbal behavior may lead to conflict, or escalate existing conflict.  Since nonverbal communication arises from our cultural common sense-our ideas of what is appropriate and normal as nonverbal communication differ. It is very important to understand  something about cultural starting-points and values in order to interpret silent messages in cross-cultural interactions. Globalization have been incredibly beneficial to many people around the world. They enjoy educational and cultural gains from it. The recent internet and communication technology revolution was also partly due to better verbal and non verbal cross-cultural communication.

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