Non-Verbal Communication across Cultures

The Cultural Environment of International Business


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Thesis Statement: 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.

I. Understanding non-verbal communication of various cultures is important due to the current trend of globalization.

II. Non-verbal communication is a type of communication that occurs in the absence of language and spoken words.

III. Cultural differences play a significant role in non-verbal communication for it makes people differ in interpretation and meaning of certain non-verbal cues.

IV. The cultural differences of people reinforced world’s diversity in the aspect of language as it plays a major role in shaping communication styles and non-verbal cues of people.





Non-Verbal Communication across Cultures


            As globalization suddenly gained popularity and widened the breadth of the global economy and society, the human interaction has also increased. Communication is a vital part of human interaction. People communicate everyday, and in every task that they do. Communication plays a significant role in various fields including activities at home, in the community and in the workplace.

            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.

Communication takes various forms in order to send a message or information across. It is conveyed through different methods and styles. Communication can be classified as either verbal or non-verbal. Verbal communication refers to the type of communication to which the message, information, thoughts or idea is conveyed to its intended receiver orally or by utilizing language and spoken words. Non-verbal communication, on the other hand, is the type of communication process that occurs in the absence of spoken words or language.

            However, non-verbal communication also occurs even in verbal communication processes. Non-verbal communication is relevant in the whole communication process for it reflects the truth and the implicit messages conveyed by the sender.

            It is important that we understand the non-verbal communication conveyed by other people since most of the messages are sent through this form. Non-verbal communication may be conveyed through posture, body language and gestures. Understanding this is essential in order to grasp other people’s messages and to be good communicators.

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 and Wolniansky 1).

            Most of the individuals focus mainly in the verbal interaction of people when 800 different non-verbal messages are exchanged in a 30-minute encounter. Verbal messages are not the only thing that is important for human interaction, further examination on other aspects of communication is needed to get the full meaning of the message (Hargrave 17).

            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 1). 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.

            The entire body and the language it conveyed play a significant part in the communication process; it has to be analyzed first to be able to get the true meaning of the message. Ever since man started his journey on earth, babies communicate with their mothers through non-verbal communication. Body language is part of the non-verbal language utilized by people. It is the key to the “inner psychological and emotional state” of a person (Hargrave 17).

            Facial expression is also a form of non-verbal communication. The person’s emotional state can be manifested through his facial expression and it has been widely studied in various psychological fields. It is important to understand the emotional expressions to be able to understand the true feelings of a person (Elfenbein 21).

            Most researchers agree that people use the verbal communication to convey ideas and information. On the other hand, the non-verbal language is used as the bridge for interpersonal attitudes and, in some cases, substitutes for the verbal communication.

            Non-verbal communication is the silent communication or conveying messages without the spoken language. Non-verbal communication plays a big part in the whole communication process because it largely affects the outcome of any conversation. If people will not be fully equipped to understand the non-verbal communication from another culture, there is a tendency that individuals will be led to misread or misunderstand a member of that culture. Some forms of non-verbal messages may have the same interpretation or meaning in other cultures, the same way that other non-verbal messages may have different meanings in another culture (Gunawan).

            Just as how verbal language and messages differ in various cultures, non-verbal messages may also be different from culture to culture. A simple gesture common in a country or a culture may have a clear meaning and interpretation; however it may be meaningless or may have the opposite meaning in another cultural perspective (Gunawan).

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 403). 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. 404).

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).

Both the verbal and non-verbal types of communication are reflections of the subjectivity of a certain culture. Understanding and appreciating the communication contexts of various cultures will enable us to understand the way they do business and how they interact with others. The United States is slowly becoming a diverse society because of the migration of people from different nations into the United States boundaries. As a result from the growth in the diversity of culture in the United States, problems in miscommunication, misunderstanding and conflicts emerged (Singh et al. 404).

The contemporary society is characterized by increasing diversity. It is important that people will recognize the emotional expressions of the members from other culture. Emotional expressions may vary across cultures (Elfenbein 23).

            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 and Wolniansky 1).

            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. 1).

            The modern society is characterized by the growing globalization and interaction of various countries. Globalization is often linked to various economic activities that are intended to benefit all the nations. But the growing global society simultaneously increases the human interaction and activities of the people in various countries. The diversity in language, in both verbal and non-verbal aspects poses threats in achieving unity and understanding.

            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. For example, when dealing with business partners abroad, we should not only know little of the language but also their body language and other non-verbal cues in order to conduct business with them properly and appropriately.

            Knowing the various cultural context of communication could be very helpful in interviewing applicants for a job. In today’s global business world, many companies based in the United States have satellite offices in other parts of the world. Personally, I have employees working for me in Bangalore, India that work for my company in a daily basis. When I happen to meet them, it would be relevant to know the non-verbal language of India to conduct business with them appropriately.


            Communication is a vital part of everyone’s life. Communication is the process of exchanging messages and information from one point to another. People are engaged in communication everyday. It takes various forms such as the verbal and non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is the type of communication that is characterized by spoken words and language. Non-verbal communication, however, is the type of communication that occurs in the absence of words and language.

            Culture is the shared characteristics of the people residing in a particular society. Culture is characterized by the inherent beliefs, practices and traditions that is shaped and reshaped by generations. Culture influenced most aspects of human activities, one of which is the way people communicate. Diversity in culture results in diversity in language and communication style. It is important to know the various non-verbal cues and behaviors and its meaning in various cultures in order to conduct business properly and successfully.

Works Cited

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

Bente, Gary, Maria Senokozlieva, Sibylle Pennig, Ahmad Al-Issa and Oliver Fischer. “Deciphering the Secret Code: A New Methodology for the Cross-Cultural Analysis of Nonverbal Behavior. ” Behavior Research Methods  40.1 (2008): 269-277.

Elfenbein, Hillary Anger. “Learning in Emotion Judgments: Training and the Cross-Cultural Understanding of Facial Expressions”. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 30 (2006): 21-36.

Gunawan, Muhammad Handi. “Non-Verbal Communication: The ‘Silent’ Cross Cultural Contact with Indonesians.” 2001. International Conference on the Teaching of Indonesian to Speakers of Other Languages. 4 November 2008 <>.

Hargrave, Jan. “Do You Speak Body Language?”. The Forensic Examiner (2008): 17-22.

Singh, Nirbhay N., Jennifer D. McKay and Ashvind N. Singh. “Culture and Metal Health: Nonverbal Communication”. Journal of Child and Family Studies 7 (1998): 403-409.


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