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Oct. 2007, Volume 4, No.10 (Serial No.


Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN1539-8072, USA

Nonverbal language in cross-cultural communication

WANG De-hua, LI Hui
(School of Foreign Languages, Ningbo Institute of Technology , Zhejiang University, Ningbo 315100, China)

Abstract: All cultures make use of nonverbal communication but the meanings of nonverbal communication vary across cultures. Nonverbal communication may be as important to understand as words are, for it can cause misunderstandings between people from different cultures if they misinterpret nonverbal symbols. Nonverbal communication is largely beyond our conscious, and the system we learn is not determined by the genetic heritage but by the socio-cultural environment. The differences across cultures in nonverbal signals have been studied widely, because of the importance and necessity in communication .The paper mainly focuses on the differences related to body language, body space, body touch and paralanguage. Key words: body language; body space; paralanguage; cross-cultural communication

1. Introduction
Cross-cultural Communication requires not only knowledge of another language but also familiarity with nonverbal behavior and cultural practices, values, and customs. Extending beyond an understanding of the words, it is the ability to understand hidden meanings, motivations and intentions. Nonverbal communication or body language is communication by facial expression, head or eye movements, hand signals, and body postures. It can be just as important to understanding as words are, because they may mean something very different from what they mean in your own culture. For example, nodding the head up and down is a gesture that communicates a different message in different parts of the world. In North America, it means I agree. In the Middle East, nodding the head down means I agree and up means I disagree. In a conversation among Japanese, it often simply means I am listening. Misunderstandings can often arise between people from different cultures if they misinterpret nonverbal signals. A case in point is that while speaking with a salesman, one Japanese student in the United States nodded his head politely to show that he was paying attention. The next day the salesman brought a new washing machine to the students apartment, because he took the nodding for YES. But the following true incident illustrates how conflicting nonverbal signals can cause serious misunderstandings. While lecturing to his poetry class at one university in Cairo, a British professor became so relaxed that he leaned back in his chair and revealed the bottom of his foot to the astonished class. Making such a gesture in Moslem society is the worst kind of insult. The next day the Cairo newspapers carried headlines about the student demonstration, and they denounced British arrogance and demanded that the professor be sent home. Although we spend many years learning how to speak a foreign language, misunderstandings can occur unless we also know the nonverbal language and the correct behavior of that culture.
WANG De-hua, female, professor of School of Foreign Languages, Ningbo Institute of Technology, Zhejiang University; research fields: English language teaching, cross-cultural communication. LI Hui, female, M.A., lecturer of School of Foreign Languages, Ningbo Institute of Technology, Zhejiang University; research field: English language teaching. 66

Nonverbal language in cross-cultural communication

2. Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

All cultures make use of nonverbal communication but the meanings of nonverbal communication vary across cultures. The differences between cultures in nonverbal communication have been studied carefully. The paper focuses on the differences related to (1) body language (2) body space and body touch (3) paralanguage. (1) Body language Gestures, body movements, facial expressions, and eye contact are behaviors called body language. Researchers found wide variations even with such universal rituals as nodding agreement and greeting friends. Although most cultures do indicate yes by a nod of the head and no by shaking it, there are variations; In Ceylon, for example, a yes answer to a specific question is indicated by a nod of the head, whereas general agreement is indicated by a slow sideways swaying of the head. For greetings, in the United States a handshake is appropriate. In France, where the traditional U.S. handshake is considered too rough and rude, a quick handshake with only slight pressure is preferred. In Latin America, a hearty embrace is common among men and women alike, and men may follow it with a friendly slap on the back. In Ecuador, to greet a person without a handshake is a sign of special respect. In India, the handshake may be used by Westernized citizens, but the preferred greeting is the namasteplacing the palms together and nodding ones head. In Japan, the traditional form of greeting is a bow or several bows. Likewise, waving good-bye varies among cultures. In Italy, Colombia, and China, people may wave good-bye by moving the palm and fingers back and forth, a gesture that more likely means come here in the United States. But in Malaysia, beckoning someone by moving the forefingers back and forth would be taken as an insult. Even seemingly obvious gestures can be misunderstood. Using fingers to indicate numbers can vary. In the United States, most people would indicate 1 by holding up the forefinger. In parts of Europe, 1 is indicated by using the thumb, 2 by the thumb and forefinger. The Japanese point their forefingers to their faces to indicate they are referring to themselves, Chinese point to their nose to signify me, whereas in the United States, citizens are more likely to point to their chests. In France and Belgium, the thumb-and-forefinger-in-a-circle (the okay gesture) has an insulting meaning: You are worth zero, while in North America or some other parts of the world, it is a friendly gesture. Eye contact is also very meaningful, but it, too, can mean different things in different countries. One study showed that Arabs, Latin Americans, and Southern Europeans focused their gaze on the eyes or face of their conversational partner, whereas Asians, Indians and Pakistanis, and Northern Europeans tend to show peripheral gaze or no gaze at all ( Harper, Wiens & Matatazzo, 1978 ). Duration of eye contact varies in diverse cultures (Shuter, 1979). In the United States, the average length of eye contact is 2. 95 seconds, and the average length of time two people gaze at each other is 1.18 seconds (Argyle, 1998; Argyle & Ingham, 1972). Any less than that may be thought that the person is shy, uninterested or preoccupied. Any more than that may indicate that the person is communicating unusually high interest. American parents and teachers tell children, Look at me when Im talking to you! They feel sure that the other person is listening if they can see his or her eyes. They think that it is important to make eye contact during a conversation. To them, its a sign of openness and honesty. It shows respect. They think that a person who doesnt look at the eyes of the listener may be hiding the truth. However, in some other cultures, children are taught not to look directly at someone. For example, in some Spanish-speaking countries, children show respect to an older


Nonverbal language in cross-cultural communication

person by not looking directly into the persons eyes during a conversation. (2) Body space and body touch People keep a distance between themselves and the person they are speaking to. It is called a social distance. People from different cultures handle space in very different ways. In the U.S., people generally stand at arms length (about 30 inches) away from a person they are talking to. Only family members, small children, and sweethearts come closer. On the other hand, people from Japan, China, and some northern European countries stand farther away (36 inches). To those people, Americans seem to get too close. And to Americans, those other people seem cold and distant. For two unacquainted North American adult males, for example the comfortable distance to stand for conversation is about two feet apart. The South American likes to stand much closer, which creates problems when a South American and a North American meet face to face. The South American who moves in to what is to him a proper talking distance may be considered pushy by the North American; and the North American may seem standoffish to the South American when he backs off to create a gap of the size that seems right to him. Once a conversation was watched between a Latin and a North American that began at one end of a forty-foot hall and eventually wound up at the other end, the pair progressing by an almost continual series of small backward steps on the part of the North American and an equal closing of the gap by the Latin American. Chinese do many more touches than Americans. It is quite usual for the Chinese to walk hand in hand between the same sex. But in America, friends with the same sex never keep such a close distance. Such kind of behavior is considered homosexual in the west and is strongly disgusted. Many Chinese like to fondle the babies and very small children to show their friendliness or affection. However, such actions like touching, patting, hugging or kissing, can be quite embarrassing and awkward for the western mothers, these behaviors would be considered rude and offensive in their eyes and could arouse a strong dislike. Various cultures have their own customs of different distance that make their people feel comfortable in personal conversation situations. Participants should understand these to fewer the unnecessary misunderstanding in communication. The way human beings space themselves may be determined not only by their culture and the particular relationships involved, but by other factors as well. Studies have shown that when two people expect to compete, they will usually sit opposite one another; expecting to cooperate, they sit side by side; while for ordinary conversation, they sit at right angles. When negotiators from two corporations hold a meeting, the teams may automatically line up facing one another across the conference table. However, if the meeting is adjourned for lunch, the men are likely to sit in alternating chairs at the restaurant tables, each negotiator sandwiched between two men from the other corporation. At a crowded cocktail party, people necessarily stand closer together to talk, and experiments indicate that they also stand closer in a public place, such as a park or on the street. Psychological studies have shown that people choose to stand closer to someone they like than to someone they dont; that friends stand closer than acquaintances do, and acquaintances closer together than strangers. The evidence also indicates that, in intimate situations, introverts maintain slightly greater distances than extroverts, and that pairs of women stand closer to talk than do pairs of men. People from different cultures have very different feelings about hugging and touching. Some Americans may touch the arm of the person they are talking to while they are speaking. A man may gently slap another man on the back when greeting him. Many Americans hug their family members and good friends when they greet

Nonverbal language in cross-cultural communication

them or say good-bye. However, some Americans do not enjoy being hugged in public. There is a great variety of feelings about hugging strangers. Some people will warmly hug a new person they are introduced to. Others may take a long time before they give a friend a hug when they say hello or good-bye. People from south if America or southern Europe frequently touch the person they are speaking to. They touch on the arm, hand, or shoulder. People from Japan seldom touch at all when speaking to others. A hug, a touch, or standing close may mean nothing special to one person. It can mean romance to a second person. And it can be offensive to a third person. Americans say that hugs are good and four hugs a day is a requirement for good health. Six is better, and eight is best. However, a hug from someone you dont wish to hug is not welcome. (3) Paralanguage The vocal cues that accompany spoken language are termed paralanguage. Among the ingredients of paralanguage are pitch, speed, volume, pause and silence. People use the basic elements to transfer the emotional and intellectual meanings of their messages. Pitch is highness or lowness of the voice, and it can serve as an emotional marker. The Chinese counterpart hao or dui can be uttered in many ways to show different emotions, attitudes and meanings. The way these little words are said is very important. Speed or tempo can also carry strong emotions. And there is also difference between Chinese speech and American speech. Chinese TV and radio speakers are far slower than their American counterparts. The underlying causes of this marked difference may be explained in two ways. One is that speech tempo tends to increase with the development of industry. Industrialized countries have a faster speech tempo than non-industrialized countries. The other is that the English language has much more polysyllabic words and carries less information per syllable than the Chinese language does. That is to say, the same amount of information can be contained in fewer Chinese syllables. Therefore, Chinese speech can afford to be slower than American speech. Volume is another important component of paralanguage. The ways of manipulating volume of speech vary across cultures. Americans and Chinese use different speech volumes in adjusting their volume levels according to the size of the audience and the physical environment. While making an address in public, Americans may laugh heartily, they will often laugh loudly on a joyful and relaxed celebration. However while giving a lecture, conversing or telephoning, their volume of sound is much lower than Chineses. As a result, when talking with a Chinese or hearing a Chinese telephoning, Americans are not accustomed to the volume of sound of a Chinese. They are surprised to see that Chinese talk loudly in places, ships, buses and other public places. But it seems that many Chinese people lack this ability. A Chinese in America often has some difficulties in adapting to the extra low voice that Americans are accustomed to. He may not get used to the low voice in classroom discussions, telephone conversations and office interviews. On the other hand, an American who first comes to China may wonder why Chinese people like quarrelling on the streets. Never do they realize that these people are actually talking loudly. Different traditions view silence much differently. Chinese people value silence more than the use of words, many of them believe that inner peace and wisdom come only through silence, just as the old sayings Silence is gold; Silence speaks louder than sound, etc. But in American culture, Americans tend to think there is no communication in silence. For instance, in response to the question Will you marry me, silence in America would be interpreted as uncertainty; while in China it would be interpreted as acceptance. We now look at a few cultural differences between Chinese and Americans in the use of silence so that we might better understand how a lack of words can influence the outcome of any communication event. So if the complicating of all these

Nonverbal language in cross-cultural communication

nonverbal signals makes you frustrated and then, just keep silence, you are absolutely wrong when you do business with people coming from America. Silence is treated as passive or negative reaction, not a signal of agreement as in China. So when businessmen from American culture show no reaction to a proposal or presentation, it should be taken as a negative attitude.

3. Conclusion
People in all cultures use nonverbal gestures to communicate and they use the symbols spontaneously, without thinking about what eye contact, what gesture, what posture is appropriate to the situation. Some of these gestures are conscious; some are unconscious. People learn the system of nonverbal communication in which they are brought up, that is the socio-cultural environment. Many nonverbal expressions vary from culture to culture, and what is acceptable in one culture may be completely unacceptable in another, and it is just those variations that make nonverbal misinterpretation a barrier. We are often not aware of how gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and the use of space affect communication, when we are not aware of their meaning within a culture. Just like cultural norms it would be impossible for anyone to learn all the possible nonverbal communication behavior meanings. While we expect language to be different, we are less likely to expect and recognize how the nonverbal symbols are different.
References: Helen Oatey. 1987. The customs and language of social interaction in English. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press. Jandt, F. E. 1995. Intercultural communication: An introduction. California: Sage Publications Ltd. Levine, D.R. & M.B. Adelman. 1982. Beyond language: Intercultural communication for English as a second language. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs. Patrick R. Moran. 2004. Teaching culture. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Samovar, L.A., R.E. Porter & L.A. Stefani. 2000. Communication between culture. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 149.

(Edited by Robert, Jessica and Doris)