You are on page 1of 10

Non-verbal cultural boundaries in negotiation

Danil De Vansa

Introduction Non-verbal aspects of personal boundaries across cultures Proxemics High context cultures and low context cultures Eye Contact Touch Posture Smile


According to Edward Hall personal space is described as an organisms territory. This is due to the connection of personal boundaries to the feeling of territoriality since a boundary determines what is accepted and allowed in. As much as two-thirds of communication in negotiations is non-verbal communication. Understanding non-verbal cues can help negotiators to communicate across cultural boundaries. Unlike physical boundaries, personal boundaries cannot be seen but are just as real. For example does prolonged eye contact make a person feel uncomfortable? A non-verbal cue such as eye contact may make someone feel comfortable or not depending on cultural upbringing. This is due to the reason that personal boundaries may be felt to be violated.

Non-verbal aspects of personal boundaries across cultures

Edward Hall spoke of culture as being something highly personal and as opposed to something being imposed on man. Nonverbal communication is also a very personal issue and forms the limits of boundary organization across different cultures.

Proxemics was a term introduced by Edward Hall. The definition according to Hall is: The study of measurable distances between people as they interact 1

Edward T. Hall "A System for the Notation of Proxemic Behaviour". American Anthropologist (1963) 65 (5): 10031026. doi:10.1525/aa.1963.65.5.02a00020.

Edward Hall categorized personal space into intimate space, personal space, social space and public space. Body spacing and posture, according to Hall, are unintentional reactions to sensory fluctuations or shifts, such as subtle changes in the sound and pitch of a person's voice. Social distance between people is reliably correlated with physical distance, as are intimate and personal distance, according to the following delineations:2 Intimate distance is the closest distance. It involves interactions such as embracing, touching and whispering. The distance is for the Close phase is less than 15 cm and for the Far phase is between 15 and 46cm. Personal distance - interactions involving family members and close friends. The distance for the Close phase is between 46 and 76cm and the Far phase 76 to 120cm. Social distance interactions involving acquaintances The distance for the Close phase is between 1.2 to 2.1 meters and for the Far phase it is between 2.1 and 3.7 metres.


Public distance is the most impersonal distance. It involves public speaking distance. The Close phase is between 3.7 to 7.6 meters and for the Far phase 7.6 meters or more. Edward Hall realized that these distances varied in different cultures. Different cultures had different standards of space in terms of proxemics. For example Latin Americans prefer to speak between themselves while standing at a closer distance than North Americans. A famous experiment involving North Americans and a Latin American showed that North Americans felt uncomfortable speaking at the same distance that Latin Americans are accustomed to. If two people from such cultures speak one might move towards the other person and the other would back off. Misunderstanding here might be that the other person is aggressive (closing distance) or unfriendly (moving away).

High context cultures and low context cultures

Edward Hall introduced the terms high context culture and low context culture. High context cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships and are more collectivistic. The context such as the tone of voice is more important than the words used. There are more formalities used at this sort of communication tends to be indirect and is governed by feelings and intuition (more internalized understanding). Here the message is more effectively communicated to an in-group. (Strong in-group/out-group feeling) Low context cultures on the other hand tend to be more logical and individualistic. It is rule oriented (external rules valued) and more task-centered. There is a separation of time, space, activities and relationships. People are free to have access to knowledge. Relationships begin and end quickly (No strong in-groups).

Examples of high context cultures Arab, Chinese, French, Indian, Japanese, Russian Examples of low context cultures American, Australian, English, Scandinavian

Adaptation in high context cultures and low context cultures

High context cultures usually have a strong sense of history and tradition. This is why high context cultures can understand each other better intuitively. Low content cultures on the other hand are more dynamic and thereby communication gaps may occur between generations. A

person adapting from a high context culture to a low context culture may have to become more independent and expect fewer intimate relationships but more relationships as a whole. A person adapting from a low context culture to a high context culture may have to get used to the ingroup mentality and team work. Here personal and professional relationships are interrelated.

Eye Contact
Eye contact communicates differently in across cultures. Direct eye contact may be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the situation and what person is involved in the communication process. For example direct eye contact when speaking to an elderly person or superior may be not be acceptable in the Japanese culture as it would not demonstrate the appropriate level of respect. In many cultures direct eye contact involving two genders may signal romantic interest. Indirect eye contact may communicate insincerity and rudeness in some cultures while the opposite is true in others. Russia Direct eye contact is a sign of respect and trustworthiness but indirect eye contact is appropriate between people who do not know each other well. United States Direct eye contact is appropriate and shows interest in both genders. Staring is considered to be very rude and to be avoided in larger cities. China Direct eye contact is preferred but a lower gaze when speaking to elders is more appropriate. In many Middle Eastern cultures returning eye contact is the same as saying I am being genuine! or Trust me! Direct eye contact between men and women is generally not acceptable as it may often signal romantic interest. It is not uncommon to see a bit more intense and constant eye contact in negotiations.

In negotiations touch in the form of formal handshakes, touch to the shoulder, pat the back etc. tend to occur .It involves direct contact and is very much connected to the personal boundary as the physical boundary is directly affected. Handshakes are common throughout many cultures. It is considered very inappropriate to refuse a handshake unless a good reason exists such as an injured hand. In some countries a handshake with both hands is common. In Islamic countries handshakes are not appropriate among the same gender. A firm handshake is generally accepted in Western countries, while a less firm handshake is expected in certain countries such as Turkey and China. A very firm handshake may be considered rude. In some cultures holding the hand for an extended period of time is appropriate. A kiss on the cheek (corresponding genders) together is expected in certain Middle Eastern cultures such as Morocco. Touching with the left hand is not approved in Islamic countries as this hand is used for toilet functions and therefore considered to be a social insult. A slight touch on the shoulder is appropriate in most cultures between people who know each other however the opposite gender restriction of traditional cultures such as India applies here too. Less public touching (English, Scandinavian, Japanese, Chinese) More public touching ( Middle Eastern, Latino)

Bowing (not done, criticized, or affected in US; shows rank in Japan) Slouching (rude in most Northern European areas) Hands in pocket (disrespectful in Turkey) Sitting with legs crossed (offensive in Ghana, Turkey)

Showing soles of feet. (Offensive in Thailand, Saudi Arabia)3

While smiles indicate a positive feeling, smiles may additionally mean different things across cultures. Smiles may be used to cover embarrassment in certain Southeast Asian cultures such as Vietnam. The Japanese may smile when they are confused or angry. Too much smiling may also indicate shallowness and dishonesty. In Russia smiling to strangers is considered inappropriate and suspicious. A smile (or laughter) without a reason (such as in response to a joke) is considered to be a sign of foolishness.

Conclusion An analysis of cultural boundaries would benefit negotiators on both sides. The outcome would be a more efficient negotiation process with no unnecessary clash of cultures involved. Today we can see that more work is done on researching different cultures and in the process cultural boundaries can be determined.

References 1)Edward T. Hall, the Silent Language (Fawcett Publication Inc., Greenwich, Conn. 1959) 2)High context culture 3)Low Context Culture

Non-verbal communication