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Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication

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Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication


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            As globalization suddenly gained popularity and widened the breadth of the global economy and society, the human interaction has also increased. Communication is an essential aspect of man’s life. Through communication, we are able to expressed ourselves, our ideas and thoughts and even share this to others. It is a vital human activity in order to carry out their everyday functions and other important human activities.

            Communication is the process of transmitting messages and information from one point to another.

This aims to avoid misunderstanding and conflict. Communication involves various skills pertinent to carry out the process properly like listening and analyzing. The communication process is utilized in various areas of life such as community, home, school and the workplace (Bergeson, n.d.).

            Communication is the process of exchanging thoughts, ideas and emotions. There are various types of communication process based on communication channels and based on style and purpose.

            Due to the diversity present in the global society, differences in culture and race arise.

Diversity causes differences in communication. The differences in culture intensify the gap in communication between people from two different cultures.

            Communication occurs between individuals everyday. The communication process of people varies according to the differences among cultures. People, therefore, communicate differently as they also grow up adhering to their inherent culture. The way we speak is influenced by our cultural environment. This particular attribute of communication poses problems in understanding members of other cultures. There is a high possibility for people to misunderstand the messages being conveyed by people belonging to other cultural groups because of the differences in the actions and styles that every individual has been accustomed to.

Non-verbal Communication

There is always a high possibility of creating misunderstanding and conflicts to occur between individuals belonging from different cultures. Difference in cultures is one of the reasons why there is diversity in the global community. Cultural diversity sets one culture apart from the other, distinguished by its discernible characteristics. The difference between cultures enables people to classify people according to their origins. For example, people can readily distinguish French people from the Japanese because of the immense difference between their cultural backgrounds.

            The cultural heritage prevalent within a nation highly influences the lives of the people within that community. Culture is the embedded characteristics of a particular community that is instilled by the first settlers of the community and passed on to generations thereafter. Culture influences beliefs, lifestyle and practices of people. It also influences the way people act and speak in front of other people. Culture is an important aspect of the society because it molds and shapes its members.

            The way people communicate with others is influenced by the instilled culture in a society. The non-verbal communication is one of the aspects of communication that is greatly influenced by culture. Most of human interaction happens in a non-verbal form. As such, a study conducted stated that almost 70 percent of human communication is non-verbal (Barnum & Wolniansky, 1989).

In all cultures, first impressions are very important. Those first impressions happen mostly on the initial meeting with other people. Non-verbal cues were consciously or unconsciously conveyed by people that form the first impressions even before verbal communication occur (Bente, Senokozlieva, Pennig, Al-Issa, and Fischer, 2008). Non-verbal cues and messages become clues when people are uncertain of the verbal messages delivered by others. This mostly becomes useful when we are speaking with people from different culture and speaking a different language. The non-verbal communication can be in various forms such as posture, feelings, facial expressions, touch, proxemics, and other nonverbal signals.

Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication

The problem with non-verbal cues lies in the possibility that it may bear a message different from an individual’s perception, based on his or her cultural background. Some people may understand non-verbal messages differently from the original intent of the sender because of the differences within the context of the culture at which the message has been applied. For example, the OK hand sign, the peace sign, and the Fonzie thumb sign all take different contexts in countries outside of the United States.  In the United States smiling is very natural and usually shows that a person is happy.  In Asian culture, smiling can mean the person is embarrassed or is suffering pain due to a tragedy.  The Fonzie thumb sign in Greece means “get stuffed”, but in the U.S. it means great job or awesome.  A simple gesture in the United States such as motioning someone with their hand to come closer can offend a Latin American, because for the Latin Americans, it is rude to make such a gesture.

Every behavior is anchored on the cultural context of a nation. The cultural context can be defined as the “web of experience” which includes thoughts, acts and the past experiences of an individual. It is the shared values of the individuals living in a society (Singh, McKay and Singh, 1998). Culture is socially constructed by the members of the society and as such, it is continuously altered and reshaped by generations.

It is relevant to understand the importance of high and low context communication for it provides the basis in understanding the non-verbal behaviors of people. All cultures are characterized by their discernible communication style ranging from low to high context communication. In high context communication, verbal messages are dominant and they occur mostly in the interaction. The Americans and other western cultures rely mostly in high context communication wherein a great amount of information is conveyed verbally (Singh et al., 1998).

However, in the low context communication, a big part of the message is conveyed non-verbally. The message is indirectly sent to the intended receiver. People from the holistic cultures such as the Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics rely most often in non-verbal communication in order to decipher the real meaning of the message (Singh et al. 404).

It is important that we understand the non-verbal cues of other people, especially those who aspire to be good communicators for it is an essential part in understanding other people. Non-verbal cues are sometimes part of the cultural beliefs and traditions of people for it is part and influenced by their inherent culture. In an interview of the popular television host, Barbara Walter with Colonel Muammar el-Qauddafi from Libya, Walters commented after the interview that, “He wouldn’t look me in the eye. I found it disconcerting…” (Barnum & Wolniansky, 1989).

            In the United States, looking in the eye shows sincerity and honesty. It is important especially for interviewers because they determine if you are honest and sincere on what you are saying. This particular action is anchored in the cultural beliefs and tradition of the Arabs. In Arab culture, men show compliment to women by not looking at them in the eye because by doing so it could be interpreted as a physical attack towards them. The culture of an individual is a factor that dictates his or her non-verbal actions (Bente et al., 2008).

With the prevalence of diversity, there will always be the tendency of misunderstanding and development of conflicts. People may experience difficulty in understanding another person from another culture in the absence of proper appreciation and knowledge on the various types and contexts of communication.

            Learning the non-verbal cues and other non-verbal aspects of communication is very important especially in dealing with other people from other culture and those who speak a different language and use a different communication style. The key is to know what we are looking for or our aim in conducting that communication process.


Barnum, C. & Wolniansky, N. (1989, June). Taking Cues from Body Language. Management Review 78: 59-60.

Bente, G., Senokozlieva, M., Pennig, S., Al-Issa, A. & Fischer, O. (2008). Deciphering the Secret Code: A New Methodology for the Cross-Cultural Analysis of Nonverbal Behavior. Behavior Research Methods 40: 269-277.

Bergeson, T. (n.d.). Communication. Superintendent of Public Instruction. Retrieved November 27, 2008 from http://www.k12.wa.us/CurriculumInstruct/communications/default.aspx

Singh, N.N., McKay, J.D. & Singh, A.N. (1998). Culture and Metal Health: Nonverbal Communication. Journal of Child and Family Studies 7: 403-409.


Cite this Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication

Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication. (2016, Aug 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/cultural-differences-in-non-verbal-communication/

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