Nonverbal Communication

Part I: Read the following article, then complete the items that follow.

Nonverbal  Communication: Speaking Without Words

"He didn't look at me once. I know he's guilty. Never trust a person who doesn't look you in the eye." --American Police Officer--

"Americans smile at strangers. I don't know what to think of that." --Russian Engineer--

"Americans seem cold. They seem to get upset when you stand close to them." -- Jordanian Teacher--


A The American police officer, the Russian engineer, and the Jordanian teacher made these comments about interactions they had with someone from a different culture. Their comments demonstrate how people can misinterpret nonverbal communication that is culturally different from their own. Of course, this can also happen in conversation among individuals of the same cultural background, but it doesn't not usually happen as often or to the same degree. Many people think that all they really need to pay attention to in a conversation is the spoken word. This is far from the truth!
B Language studies traditionally emphasized verbal and written communication. Since about the 1960's, however, researchers seriously began to consider what takes place without words in conversations. In some instances, more nonverbal than verbal communication occurs. For example, if you ask an obviously depressed person, "What's wrong?" and he answers "Nothing, I'm fine." you probably won't believe him. Or when an angry person says "Let's forget this subject. I don't want to talk about it anymore!" she hasn't stopped communicating. Her silence and withdrawal continue to convey emotional meaning.
C One study done in the United States showed that 93 percent of a message was transmitted by the speakers tone of voice and facial expressions. Only 7 percent of the person's attitude was conveyed by words. Apparently, we express our emotions and attitudes more nonverbally than verbally.

Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

D Nonverbal communication expresses meaning or feeling without words. Universal emotions, such as happiness, fear, sadness, are expressed in a similar nonverbal way throughout the world. There are, however, nonverbal differences across cultures that may be a source of confusion for foreigners. Let's look at the way people express sadness. In many cultures, such as the Arab and Iranian cultures, people express grief openly. They mourn out loud, while people from other cultures (e.g., China and Japan) are more subdued. In Asian cultures, the general belief is that is is unacceptable to show emotion openly (whether sadness, happiness, or pain).
E Let's take another example of how cultures differ in their nonverbal expression of emotion. Feelings of friendship exist everywhere in the world, but their expression varies. It is acceptable in some countries for men to embrace and for women to hold hands; in other countries, these displays of affection are discouraged or prohibited.
F As with nonverbal communication, what is considered usual or polite behavior in one culture may be seen as unusual or impolite in another. One culture may determine that snapping fingers to call a waiter is appropriate, whereas another may consider this gesture rude. We are often not aware of how gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and the use of conversational distance affect communication. To interpret another culture's style of communication, it is necessary to study the "silent language" of that culture.

Gestures and Body Positioning

G Gestures are specific body movements that carry meaning. Hand motions alone can convey many meanings: "Come here," Go away," It's okay," and "That's expensive!" are just a few examples. The gestures for these phrases often differ across cultures. For example, beckoning people to come with the palm up is common in the United States. This same gesture in the Philippines, Korea, and parts of Latin America as well as other countries is considered rude. In some countries, only an animal would be beckoned with the palm up.
H As children, we imitate and learn to use these nonverbal movements to accompany or replace words. When traveling to another country, foreign visitors soon learn that not all gestures are universal. For example, the "O.K." gesture in the American culture is a symbol for money in Japan. This same gesture is obscene in some Latin American countries. (This is why the editors of a Brazilian newspaper enjoyed publishing a picture of a former American president giving the "O.K." symbol with both hands!)
I Many American business executives enjoy relaxing with their feet up on their desks. But to show a person from Saudi Arabia or Thailand the sole of one's foot is extremely insulting, because the foot is considered the dirtiest part of the body. Can you imagine the reaction in Thailand when a foreign shoe company distributed an advertisement showing a pair of shoes next to a sacred sculpture of Budda?

Facial Expressiveness

J Facial expressions carry meaning that is determined by situations and relationships. For instance, in American culture the smile is typically an expression of pleasure. Yet it also has other functions. A woman's smile  at a police officer does not carry the same meaning as the smile she gives to a young child. A smile may show affection, convey politeness, or disguise true feelings. For example many people in Russia consider smiling at strangers in public to be unusual and even suspicious behavior. Yet many Americans smile freely at strangers in public places (although this is less common in big cities). Some Russians believe that Americans smile in the wrong places; some Americans believe that Russians don't smile enough. In Southeast Asian cultures, a smile is frequently used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment. Vietnamese people may tell the sad story of how they had to leave their country but end the story with a smile.
K Our faces reveal emotions and attitudes, but we should not attempt to "read" people from another culture as we would "read" someone from our own culture. The degree of facial expressiveness one exhibits varies among individuals and cultures. The fact that members of one culture do not express their emotions as openly as do members of another does not mean that they do not experience emotions. Rather, there are cultural restraints on the amount of nonverbal expressiveness permitted. For example, in public and formal situations many Japanese do not show their emotions as freely as Americans do. More privately and with friends, Japanese and Americans seem to show their emotions similarly. Many teachers in the United States have a difficult time knowing whether their Japanese students understand and enjoy their lessons. The American teacher is looking for more facial responsiveness than what the Japanese student is comfortable with in the classroom situation.
L It is difficult to generalize about Americans and facial expressiveness because of individual and ethnic differences in the United States. People from certain ethnic backgrounds in the United States tend to more facially expressive than others. The key, is to try not to judge people whose ways of showing emotions are different. If we judge according to our own cultural norms, we may make the mistake of "reading' the other person incorrectly.

Eye Contact

M Eye contact is important because insufficient or excessive eye contact can create communication barriers. In relationships, it serves to show intimacy, attention, and influence. As with facial expressions, there are no specific rules governing eye behavior in the United States, except that is is considered rude to stare, especially at strangers. In parts of the United States, however, such as on the West Coast and in the South, it is quite common to glance at strangers when passing them. For example, it is usual for two strangers walking toward each other to make eye contact, smile, and perhaps even say "Hi," before immediately looking away. This type of contact doesn't mean much; it is simply a way of acknowledging another person's presence. In general, Americans make less eye contact in bus stations, for example, than in more comfortable settings such as a university student center.
N Patterns of eye contact are different across cultures. Some Americans feel uncomfortable with the "gaze" that is sometimes associated with Arab or Indian communication patterns. For Americans, this style of eye contact is too intense. Yet too little eye contact may also be viewed negatively, because it may convey a lack of interest, inattention, or even mistrust. The relationship between the lack of eye contact and mistrust  in the American culture is stated directly in the expression "Never trust a person who doesn't look you in the eyes." In contrast, in many other parts of the world (especially in Asian countries), a person's lack of eye contact toward an authority figure signifies respect and deference.

Conversation Distance

O Unconsciously, we all keep a comfortable distance around us when we interact with other people. This distance has had several names over the years, including "personal space," "interpersonal distance," "comfort zone," and "body bubble." This space between us and another person forms invisible walls that define how comfortable we feel at various distances from other people.
P The amount of space changes depending on the nature of the relationship. For example, we are usually more comfortable standing closer to family members than to strangers. Personality also determines the size of the area with which we are comfortable when talking to people. Introverts often prefer to interact with others at a greater distance than do extroverts. Culture styles are important too. A Japanese employer and employee usually stand farther apart while talking than their American counterparts. Latin Americans and Arabs tend to stand closer than Americans do when talking.
Q For Americans, the usual distance in social conversation ranges from about an arm's length to four feet. Less space in the American culture may be associated with either greater intimacy or aggressive behavior. The common practice of saying "Excuse me," for the slightest accidental touching of another person reveals how uncomfortable Americans are if people get too close. Thus, a person whose "space" has been intruded upon by another may feel threatened and react defensively. In cultures where close physical contact is acceptable and even desirable, Americans may be perceived as cold and distant.
R Culture does not always determine the message of nonverbal communication. The individual's personality, the context, and the relationship also influence its meaning. However, like verbal language, nonverbal language is linked to person's cultural background. People are generally comfortable with others who have "body language" similar to their own. One research study demonstrated that when British graduate students imitated some Arab patterns of nonverbal behavior (making increased eye contact, smiling, and directly facing their Arab partners), the Arabs felt that these students were more likeable and trustworthy than most of the other British students.
S When one person's nonverbal language matches that of another, there is increased comfort. In nonverbal communication across cultures there are similarities and differences. Whether we choose to emphasize the former or the latter, the "silent language" is much louder than it first appears.

Part II: Discussion Questions (need hyperlink to discussion_questions.htm)

Part III: Vocabulary Exercises 

            Section 1 (need hyperlink to vocabulary_list.htm)

            Section 2 (need hyperlink to definitions.htm)

            Section 3 (need hyperlink to synonyms.htm)

            Section 4 (need hyperlink to matching.htm)

            Section 5 (need hyperlink to multiple_choice.htm)

Reading material, discussion questions, and vocabulary exercises taken from Beyond Language by Levine and Adelman, Prentice Hall, 1993.