Nonverbal Communication within the Framework of Cross-Cultural Linguistics

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Communication plays important role in the life of any person. It is the main channel, through which the information is received and transmitted further. While talking about communication people usually imply verbal communication, which consists of several component speech and written language being the most important. For the most part this is true, but one should never forget the importance of the nonverbal communication, which can be observed even more frequently than the verbal one. The main focus of this paper is the investigation of the notion of the nonverbal communication, its main types, levels and functions. The other aspect under research is the correlation of verbal and non-verbal communication. Finally, the paper dwell on one of the most interesting and controversial aspect of the nonverbal communication – its interpretation through different cultures. Some of universal cross-cultural nonverbal signs will be discussed alongside the peculiar signs, inherent in each particular country. One more aspect of the cross-cultural nonverbal communication, which will be discussed in this paper is interpretation of the same nonverbal signs by the representatives of different cultures.

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The notion of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is primitively defined as the process, in which the illocutir sends and perlocutor receives wordless messages, which can be of different types: gesture, facial expression, body language or posture and eye contact; clothing, infographics, prosodic characteristics, speaking style (Wolfgang, 1984).

It should be mentioned that sign languages and writing are for the most part understood by scholars as forms of verbal communication, which transmit sense through words. The main difference is that nonverbal communication is made through sensory channels: sight, sound, touch, smell or taste. The other scholars differentiate nonverbal communication from unconscious communication, as the latter can be both verbal and non-verbal.

In fact, nonverbal communication can be understood as the type of human communication events as opposed to spoken or written language (Knapp, 1978). According to Argyle the act of nonverbal communication is made through facial expression, gaze, bodily contact, spatial behaviour gesture, body posture, clothing and appearance, and non-verbal vocalisation (Argyle, 1988).

Numerous researchers proved that nonverbal communication is intended to reinforce, contradict, emphasize, substitute, complement or regulate verbal communication (Knapp, 1978). The research conducted by Kendon showed that nonverbal means of communication are not dependent on the verbal ones, which leads to the conclusion that nonverbal communication is a quite separate form of communication, which is independent from, equal to and even superior than spoken language (Kendon, 1983).

The other research shows that it is very important for human perception to be able to recognize and correctly interpret the emotional state of other people. The research also stresses that understanding f the signs of the nonverbal communication is among the most significant function of interpersonal perception. Dittrich states that emotional states are further transformed into actions, therefore, it is of primary importance for a person to be able to interpret emotional states, which are revealed through nonverbal signs (Dittrich, Troscianco, La, Morgan, 1996).

A group of researchers including Tortoriello, Blott, and DeWine proposed the following definition of non-verbal communication:

“Nonverbal communication is the exchange of messages primarily through non-linguistic means, including: kinesics (body language), facial expressions and eye contact, tactile communication, space and territory, environment, paralanguage (vocal but non-linguistic cues), and the use of silence and time” (Tortoriello, Blott, and DeWine in Nonverbal Communication, 2007 ).

Relationship Between Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

The correlation between verbal and nonverbal communication are being a matter of close investigation for quite a long time. Much research was done on the comparison of verbal and nonverbal communication codes. At the result of these researches there established a thought that verbal language originated on the basis of the prior nonverbal predecessor (Hartley, 1993).

Noam Chomsky considers for example that “verbal language is an advanced and refined form of an inherited nonlinguistic (nonverbal) system”(Hartley, 1993). The main difference is that the verbal language system makes extensive use of symbols, while the nonverbal system is based on signals. According to the linguistic definitions a symbol is ‘an arbitrarily selected and learned stimulus representing something else”, while the sign “is a natural and constituent part of that which it represents” (Dirven & Vespoor, 1999).

Words can not tell us everything. It is considered that for the most part words transmit intellectual messages rather than emotional. In fact nonverbal communications can give the observers more about the feelings and emotions of other people. This is done through various nonverbal signals. The role of the non-verbal communication is now being under close research and investigation. Body language is considered important and necessary for communication. Quite often people tend to hide their body language. This can be done because of a fear of rejection. In fact, it should be mentioned that hiding ones emotions can have a negative influence on the further development of relations among people. Thus, in order to promote the relations people have to use their nonverbal skills and don’t hide their body language not to cause alienation (Messina & Messina, 1997).

The other aspect of the nonverbal communication study deals with the correct interpretation of body language, which can be misunderstood just like it can happen with verbal communication. Interpretation of nonverbal signs depends on the observer’s background, which includes the notions of culture, family, lifestyle, etc. Each person has its own choice of gestures for denoting some feelings. It is also stated that the gestures are for the most part not isolated. They are connected in clusters, which reinforce and support the meaning of each separate sign (Messina & Messina, 1997).

Research of Nonverbal Communication

The importance of nonverbal communication within the framework of the overall process of communication was recognised long ago. For example, the famous orator Demosthenes having been asked what is the first part of oratory replied “action”. Then he was asked what the second part was and Demosthenes answered “action”. Finally, when he was asked to say what the third part was he still replied “action”. This is the nice proof that people have more trust to actions rather than words (Nonverbal communication, 2007). The other proof is the proverb saying that “Actions speak louder than words”.

So, it’s no wonder that nowadays much research is done on the investigation of the information communicated not through words but information transmitted through the non-verbal communication. These two types of communication use internally different means. Verbal communication is based on language; while non-verbal on a number of other different means except the language (Nonverbal communication, 2007).

The role of the communication in every person’s life should not be underestimated. It was stated that 75 percent of his active time a person spends on communication, through which he transmits his experience, ideas and thoughts. However, one should remember that this communication is for the most part nonverbal, which is opposed to verbal one based on oral and written forms of the language(Nonverbal communication, 2007).

Face-to-face communication is characterised by the simultaneous use of the both levels. In case one of the levels contradicts the other one, communication fails. Moreover, some researchers consider nonverbal communication even more important, largely due to the fact that the receiver of the information usually trusts more to the nonverbal cues, which the sender gives (Nonverbal communication, 2007).

Nonverbal communication is quite a broad field of knowledge, which incorporates numerous categories and features. Research conducted by G. W. Porter proposes four main categories of nonverbal communication. They are the following:

The first category of NVC is physical communication. Porter considers this type of communication to be highly personal, which includes such means as facial expressions, sense of touch, sense of smell, tone of voice, and various body movements (Samovar & Porter, 2004).

The second category – aesthetic, happens through various creative expressions. This can be for example, dancing, painting or playing instrumental music (Samovar & Porter, 2004).

The third category of nonverbal communication according Porter is signs. The scholar calls it also the mechanical type of communication, which makes use of a number of techniques like signal flags, horns or the 21-gun salute (Samovar & Porter, 2004).

Finally, the last category under the Porter’s study is symbolic nonverbal communication, which involves religious, class and ego-building symbols (Samovar & Porter, 2004).

This research paper is primarily concerned with the category, which Porter calls physical method of non-verbal communication.

It should be mentioned that nonverbal communication proves beneficial for many spheres of the human life. For example, Argyle conducted a research, which gives valuable pieces of advice for managers how to use the techniques of nonverbal communication in successful leadership practice. His main findings were the following:

Much attention is given to the static features of nonverbal communication. Static features incorporate a number of factors.

The first factor is distance from the sender of the message and his receiver, which conveys a non-verbal message. Distance is interpreted differently in different cultures.

The second factor is orientation, which is viewed as a character of the presentation of people to one another. Orientation can be of different types like face-to-face, side-to-side, and even back-to-back. For business world orientation has one of the primary meanings. The following examples are given: competitors usually sit face-to-face, while partners tend to choose side-by-side position (Argyle, 1988).

The third factor is posture, which conveys the degree of formality. Thus, a person can either stand or sit or lie down. However, the main meaning is conveyed through the overall pose. Thus, much can be understood about the feeling or state of the person depending of the fact whether his legs are crossed or his arms are folded  (Argyle, 1988).  Finally, static features are also represented by physical contact, which includes shaking hands, embracing, patting on the back. The main meaning of all these messages is to convey the degree of intimacy and attraction  (Argyle, 1988).

The other type of features is dynamic ones. This type is also a quite broad category, which includes the list of following factors:

Facial expressions, like yawn, smile, raised eyebrows, are in fact, important signals of information, which the sender wants to transmit. This type of features is quite unstable as facial expressions can change during the conversation a huge number of times. On the other hand facial expressions have the greater degree of similarity across cultures  (Argyle, 1988).

The second group of factors includes a wide variety of different gestures. Probably, the most wide spread group of gestures include various hand movements, which are the most frequent accompaniments of speech. At the same time this is the least explored and understood type of gestures. It should be noted that some gestures, a clenched fist among them, posses universal meaning through all cultures, while other gestures are highly idiosyncratic and differ greatly from culture to culture  (Argyle, 1988).

Looking also belongs to dynamic features, which can show either interest or boredom depending on its frequency. In fact, eye contact has a broad meaning, suggesting various emotions during the process of communication  (Argyle, 1988).  So, it can be concluded that both static features and dynamic features are very important for transmission of valuable information from the sender to the receiver.

Classification of Nonverbal Communication

The next chapter will cover the classification of nonverbal communication. Seven main classes, or codes, are considered among the main types of nonverbal signals. The presented classification proposes the main groups of codes, which are organized in distinct, organized clusters, which disclose both symbols and rules for their use. However, it should be mentioned that in spite of the quite strict classification, codes are not isolated and usually co-occur and overlap in the process of communication. Besides, they are not isolated or alternative to verbal communication, but actually support and supplement the latter. So, the brief classification of nonverbal codes include:

•     The first code is kinesics, which includes messages sent through body. Kinetic movements include facial expression, gestures, body movement and gait (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

•     The second code is vocalics known also as paralinguistic. This code involves vocal cues excluding words, like silence, volume, pitch, rate of speech (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

•     The third code is physical appearance such as clothing, hairstyle, perfumes, cosmetics and the likewise (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

•     The fourth code is haptics, which is the general term for touching movements like frequency, type and intensity of touch (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

•     The fifth type is proxemics, which conveys messages through interpretation of spatial characteristics, like sender-receiver distance, territoriality of the act of communication and others (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

•     The sixth code is known as chronemics and based on the time it involved a broad variety of time messages. The receiver can draw conclusions from punctuality, amount of time spent for communication, waiting time and other time characteristics (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

•     Finally, the seventh code is presented by artefacts. This code includes objects in the external environment, which also can send a message to the observer. Artefacts are presented by furniture, architecture, pets and the rest (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

At the first sight this is a well-defined and detailed framework, which allows the observer to perceive and conceptualize nonverbal communication. However, it is mainly of no use to seek meaning only in one code, disregarding the other. All codes overlap and work in combination, together with verbal communication to transmit a certain meaning (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

In order to understand the integration of nonverbal codes it is also advisable to have a closer look at their functions. Actually, nonverbal communication is applied for a wide range of various goals, which cannot sometimes be achieved even by verbal communication.

First, nonverbal communication intends to make impressions. Very important role in this goal is played by physical appearance, however, kinesics, chronemics, and other codes can not be disregarded (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

Second, nonverbal communication is intended to manage interaction. Such codes as facial expression, vocalics, and proxemics are extensively used by communicators to show turn taking in communication and even leave taking (Levine & Adelman, 1993).

Third, nonverbal communication serves for expressing emotion. Many researchers believe that nonverbal expression is the main part of emotional experience. Emotional expression appropriateness is governed by its own particular rules  (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

Fourth, nonverbal communication is a perfect possibility used by the communicators to send relational messages. Thus, with the help of nonverbal communication people are able to display affection, respect or dominance  (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

Fifth, listener can detect deception while observing the body language of his communicator  (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

Sixth, nonverbal communication is extensively used by the sender of the message to transmit the messages of power and persuasion. This last goal of the nonverbal communication is a valuable source of information for leadership training  (Ciccia, Step, Turska, 2003).

So, this functional approach is extremely valuable due to the fact that it reflects the use of the nonverbal communication by people. Nonverbal messages closely associated with each other to form patterns. Several nonverbal cues organize and give additional implicatures to a single message.

Nonverbal communication within the Framework of Cross-cultural Linguistics

One more important issue, which will be covered in this paper, is the application of the study of nonverbal communication to cross-cultural study. For example, let’s investigate the notion of occulesics within the framework of cross-cultural linguistics. Valuable contribution to this field was made by Ling (1997), who showed how differently gaze can be perceived by different cultures.  For example, in some cultures lowering one’s gaze implies respect, while in the others the same motion can be regarded as evading or even insulting. Vice versa, quite different attitude can be found to direct eye contact, which is considered as the sign of attention in Western cultures but can be regarded as insulting in some Eastern cultures (Ling, 1997).

The other observation was made by Vargas, who investigated cultural characteristics of eye contact, its amount and length. He came to the conclusion that American women may regard long eye contact as insult or threat, while Italian and French women may regard the short eye contact in the same way and also consider that this may be a sign of lack of interest and avoiding (Vargas 1986).

Haptics also has primary meaning for cross-cultural communication and understanding. Heslin (1974) classified haptic behaviour into several degrees of intimacy:

1. functional/professional

2. social/polite

3. friendship/warmth

4. love/intimacy

5. sexual arousal (Heslin, 1974)

It should be mentioned that the boundaries between these main levels of intimacy are not so clearly-cut and can be fuzzy not only across cultures but also within the same culture as well. Although across cultures the difference can be very striking. Thus, what is referred to the second level of haptic behaviour in one culture can be interpreted as the forth level in another. In different cultures different haptic standards are established. Lack of knowledge of these standards may cause conflicts, as touching movements used inappropriately may lead to irritation and misinterpretation of the intention of touch.

For example, probably the most widespread and popular haptic gesture is the hand shake. However, handshakes vary in strength, length and degrees depending on the culture where it occurs. Thus, in Western cultures it is normal to touch each other quite often. Here handshake belongs to the second level of intimacy, while in many Eastern countries, where touching is less frequent, simple handshake can refer to the fourth level of intimacy (Zaharna, 1995).

Of course, haptic behaviour can not be restricted merely to handshakes. It may imply a wide variety of touching behaviours. Arab cultures consider frequent mutual touches between men and embracing as well as walking arm in arm to be usual and normal, while for Europeans this will be a vivid sign of intimate sexual relationship. Remland and Jones (1995) conducted a research on a number of touches between people of the same culture. At the result of the research it was estimated that in England (8%), France (5%) and the Netherlands (4%) touching is not so wide-spread as in Italy (14%) or Greece (12.5%) (Botan, 1992).

The other culturally dependant sphere of interpersonal communication is proxemics. Thus, across different cultures different types of “penetration” are accepted. It was observed that those cultures, which have high level of haptic behaviour, usually tend to accept closer interpersonal space. The vivid example of this is that Latin and Arab cultures are characterised by less distance among people in the process of interpersonal communication, while Northern Europeans tend to sit farther.

According to the research conducted by Remland and Jones (1995) on the basis of proximic rules of seven nations, Englishmen have the greatest distance in the process of conversation (15.40 in), Irishmen sit closest (10.34 in). Greek people have the interpersonal distance of 13.86 in, Italian – 14.18 in, and French people sit as far as 14.73 in from each other (Remland and Jones, 1995).

Cultural and non-cultural aspects of non-verbal communication

So, on the one hand it was already shown that nonverbal communication is very culture bound. However, there are still some universal aspects of nonverbal communication. For example, facial expressions tend to have the same or at least very similar meanings across cultures.

Researchers consider that although facial expression tend to have similar meanings throughout different cultures, there is still a difference in the extend of the expression of feelings and emotions through mimics, which remains strongly culture bound. For example, Asian cultures quite often are seen as less expressive, especially if compared with Latin cultures (Segerstroale & Molnar, 1993).

So, facial expressions are given different levels of importance by the representatives of different cultures. Therefore, one can expect that there are also some differences in the amount of reaction of the facial expression. Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey consider that interpretation of facial expressions is quite culture-bound and is a characteristic of cultural similarity. This implies that for Europeans it is much easier to give the correct interpretation of the facial expressions of other Europeans, than it can be for Asian people. The conclusion is: people, which cultures share some degree of similarity, are able to make more correct judgements about the facial expressions, than people of completely dissimilar cultures (Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey, 1997).

Body language: cultural or universal?

Valuable research on universal and culturally-biased characteristics of the interpretations of facial emotions was done by Ekman and Friesen. They aimed to determine the degree of accuracy of the interpretation of facial expressions by people from Western and non-Western cultures. The research was done on the basis of photographs of Caucasian men, which had to be matched to the corresponding facial expressions. The result was consistent evidence of agreement across all cultures examined. The results showed that Europeans can relatively easily define the facial expressions of other Europeans, while Japanese emotions were not so easily read. Japanese people identified European facial expressions without problems, however, they had difficulty in determining of facial expressions of their Japanese brothers (Ekman and Friesen, 1969).

Of course, body is universal as it is one of the most important and wide-spread means of communication. However, it should be mentioned that the information of body movements and their manner vary from culture to culture. For example, having a closer look at the body language of Arabs and Europeans, one can notice striking differences although the degree of similarity is also very high

Arabs are sensitive to nonverbal communication, probably, more than English people. Arab nonverbal communication is very influenced by society and culture. According to the basis of the culture, Arab people have to be resolved on public and control their emotions as well and the volume and pitch of their voice (Segerstrale &  Molnar, 1963).

However, in reality men quite often show their emotions and in a very open manner, like crying or screaming in public (Segerstrale &  Molnar, 1963).

Arab people are very troubled with their reputation and desire to be honoured and respected. Therefore, flattering signs are quite popular within this culture. Quite often due to their desire to keep one’s self-esteem Arabs may exaggerate their “keeping up appearances” (Knapp & Hall, 1992).

While speaking Arabs look into the eyes of the interlocutor more often and more direct than American or English people, the same tactics can even offend Japanese person. However, it is not only codes of nonverbal behaviour that changes. The function of body language is also not the same. An Arab may display his emotions nonverbally during an exchange; however, a Japanese when found in the same position tends to keep hold of himself (Knapp & Hall, 1992).

Non-cultural influence on Nonverbal Communication

One more issue to be covered in this paper is the dependence of non-verbal communication styles on gender characteristics. Gender influences both usage of nonverbal means of communication and their interpretation as well. Lennon and Eisenberg (1987) proved that women smile more often than men. Even communicating with women men apply different nonverbal communication tactics, than they have in while talking to another men. Lennon and Eisenberg also maintain that nonverbal communication is also influenced by the age of interlocutors (Lennon & Eisenberg, 1987).

And of course, one can’t neglect personal characteristics, which also have the influence on the nonverbal communication styles and this influence is greater than the influenced from the culture or gender. Personal idiosyncracies are essential for the use and the choice of nonverbal communication means (Lennon & Eisenberg, 1987).

Besides, scholars consider that the use if the body language is highly dependent on situational factors, the most important of which are timing or size (Victor, 1992).


So, in the process of investigation the sphere of nonverbal communication was thoroughly explored. The notion of the nonverbal communication was defined as transmission of information through the means other than used by the verbal communication. There are different types of nonverbal communication, like facial expression, gaze, bodily contact, spatial behaviour gesture, body posture, clothing and appearance. All nonverbal communication can be classified in seven main codes: kinesics, which includes messages sent through body; vocalics also known also as paralinguistic; physical appearance; haptics, which includes touching movements; proxemics, which deals with spatial characteristics; chronemics, based on the time, and artefacts, including objects in the external environment.

Nonverbal communication performs various functions, like making impressions, managing interaction, expressing emotion, means of sending relational messages, deception detection and communication of the messages of power and persuasion.

The research also explored cross-cultural characteristics of the nonverbal communication. It was proved that the use as well as interpretation of nonverbal signs is greatly influenced by the cultural background of the speaker as well as his gender characteristics, age and even personal features.

A survey was made to show culture differences between Arab and Western interlocutors. It was proved that although sharing considerable degree of similarity nonverbal communication of these cultures is quite different and in order to assure better understanding of language, both verbal and nonverbal, people have to learn about the cultural peculiarities of each particular nation.


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