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Culture Focus

Nonverbal Communication in Different Cultures

Wenting Ao May 15, 2019

Imagine this: Your friend is showing you a new pair of shoes she just got. You are not very fond of the color but out of politeness, you feel obliged to compliment, “These look great!” Despite trying really hard to not upset your friend, you find your eyebrows curl up in a frown because you really don’t think they look great.  This is an example of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication usually contains more contexts than verbal communication. People may be able to lie verbally, but their nonverbal language, such as hand gestures and eye contact, are not easy to disguise. In daily life, we might have heard about all kinds of nonverbal personality traits attributed to different cultural groups giving rise to stereotypes like Asians do not reveal their true emotions; Americans are fake; Japanese people are polite but apathetic and so on.  Different cultures have distinct interpretation toward nonverbal communication.

Facial expressions

When a person is laughing or smiling, it may not simply mean they are happy when you consider broader cultural context. For example, in Japan, people smiling or laughing might mean they are angry and are trying to conceal it. In many Asian cultures, not revealing real feelings is a sign of maturity. However, in American culture and some European cultures, people usually do not hide their real emotions, and are more straightforward.   

Eye Contact

Each culture reads the meaning of eye contact distinctively. In most Asian cultures, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect. Especially in professional or family settings, locking gazes with supervisors and seniors is considered impolite. However, in America, maintaining eye contact with supervisors means that person is confident and honest. Similarly, in Germany, people usually will not break eye contact during their talking.

Body Language

Body language includes head, arms, legs, and hands gestures. In Mexico, if people’s palms face downwards, it means they are measuring the height of an object. However, people from most countries, such as America and China, will use the same hand gesture to indicate the height of a person. When a person is nodding the head, the worldwide perception would think the person means yes. On the contrary, in India, nodding the head means “no”, and shaking the head means “yes.”  

Personal distance

Personal distance refers to comfortable distance people maintain with each other, but this differs from culture to culture. For example, in Romania, the average personal distance kept with strangers is 4.6 feet, but the comfortable distance with people you do not know in Argentina is 2.5 feet. Likewise, in Saudi Arabia, even with closer friends or families, Arabs keep a distance of 3.2 feet, which is a suitable distance with strangers in most countries, such as Mexico and Norway.     

Nowadays, learning how to communicate between cultures is essential to reduce misunderstandings and build good relationships with others. We may not be able to become an expert in this area, but we can solve problems and negotiate more efficiently if we gain the ability to communicate across cultures.