People who come from the same cultural background, especially along socioeconomic lines, predictably use the same nonverbal cues to the point that they fail to respect how these cues pervade their interactions. Often, we have to be at the receiving end of an extended middle finger during rush hour or a firm hug from a friend at a reunion to appreciate the powerful role that nonverbal communication plays in imparting our basic, and often base, human emotions.
Cross-cultural communication, however, compels people to use nonverbal cues with greater mindfulness, as even the most innocuous gesture in one society can insult people in another—or, at the very least, it can leave them befuddled in the wake of what transpired.
Thus, nonverbal symbols carry different semantics from culture to culture. If someone sticks his tongue out at a stranger on any street in the United States, for example, he generally means to mock that person. If someone uses the same gesture in Polynesia, on the other hand, he intends to show deference to the person before him (Kirch, 1973, p. 417). In Northern Europe and in the United States, if a person nods her head up and down, she means to answer in the affirmative; but if she shakes her head from side to side, she means to answer in the negative. In Greece, however, the upward movement of the head communicates disagreement, but the downward movement of the head communicates affirmation. Thus, a Greek and an American may struggle to maintain a consistently transparent nonverbal interaction, which could further complicate any possible verbal language barriers. The Greek might regard the American as indecisive, since the American’s full nod encompasses both the affirmative and the negative answer according to the Greek’s perspective (Kirch, 1973, p.417). It follows that the American, after seeing the Greek move his head downward, might interpret this movement as a shorthand version of a “yes” response. Additionally, from the American’s perspective, a Greek who moves his head upward might come off as a person contemplating a thought, not as a person showing his disagreement. The Greek may in fact speak American English, or vise versa; but even so, if neither understands that nonverbal cues do not correspond from culture to culture, then the gestures each brings to the interaction will complicate the other’s decoding process.
Gestures themselves are easy to recognize on a visual basis, even if their actual meanings prove difficult to discern. Again with regard to head movements, if a person answers “yes” but shakes her head “no,” something in her encoding process has gone amiss. Some nonverbal cues, however, are not as easy to recognize when compared to the headshake – i.e., an intentional action that conveys a noticeable, if confusing, a message. Specifically, people use gazes and proxemics to communicate with others on a more subconscious level. With regard to gazes, some cultures view eye contact as a social necessity during conversations, while other cultures view it as a display of disrespect. In the United States, if two people pass each other, etiquette dictates that they make eye contact; in so doing, they acknowledge each other’s existence. An American woman in the streets of France, however, should expect men to look at her as she passes with a degree of intensity that might leave her feeling either flattered or vulnerable (Kirch, 1973, p.420).
With regard to proxemics, one culture may view closeness as an invasion of space, especially closeness among strangers; but other cultures require this close proximity, as good rapport requires it. Thus, Americans—who value their personal space, their “bubble” —might feel confined and violated in any given South American country. On the other hand, an Argentinean in the United States might regard an American as too cold and impersonal if the latter prioritizes his need for space over his conversation partner (Kirch, 1973, p. 420).
Another aspect of nonverbal communication stems from proximity. Before a person can establish proxemics at a business meeting or at any sort of transaction that warrants cross-cultural communication, he must keep a sense of chronemics, that is, a sense of how people value time (Kirch, 1979, p. 422). Americans have a “time equals money” attitude, whereas Mexicans keep a laidback sense of timeliness. This contrast of chronemics could be problematic, especially in a business setting: Two people may speak each other’s language, to be sure; but if they had planned a business meeting while failing to account for each other’s chronemic priorities, then upon meeting his Mexican counterpart, the American might regard him as undependable and disrespectful, whereas the Mexican might regard the American as uptight, puritanical, and cold. The meeting would have started on a bad note, all because of a cultural misunderstanding.
Indeed, culture is tied to language, and if a society loses its language, it will invariably lose the important, distinguishing aspects of its cultural identity. But verbal language alone cannot express every emotion, every truth, every priority of a culture, so nonverbal language necessarily serves as a counterpart. In fact, research demonstrates that nonverbal language, deliberate or otherwise, accounts for 65 to 70 percent of the communicative process, regardless of setting (Kirch, 1979, p. 423; Allen, 1999, p.69). It thus follows that nonverbal behavior has an equal part to play in defining culture.
Unfortunately, as Kellerman (1992, p. 239) maintains, linguists and language teachers give nonverbal coding processes less respect than they give verbal coding processes. In other words, while academics and teachers, especially those in the Humanities, structure their classes to account for how verbalized language operates in the service of cultural expression, they seldom account for how nonverbal language operates in the same capacity, toward the same end.
Thus, foreign language teachers must expand their pedagogies to include a robust treatment of the nonverbal behaviors particular to a country or region. In so doing, these teachers will not only help their students stay within reach of a “fuller stage of communication in the target language” (Kirch, 1979, p. 423); but in less idealistic terms, these teachers can practically help students mitigate any cultural shock they might encounter should they enter their countries of study for academic, business, leisure, or spiritual and religious purposes.
Some foreign language courses at least make a passing mention of nonverbal behaviors as they relate to culture. In a Spanish course, an instructor might mention, though not necessarily in these words, that Mexican chronemics vastly differ from American chronemics. A German teacher might familiarize her students with German restaurant customs by telling them that it is not at all rare for strangers to share one table in a restaurant. However, these examples seem to be topics of side conversation that come up anecdotally, being presented with a touch of levity. While these examples may in fact capture the lighthearted differences between cultures, the greater truth—namely, that cultures not only speak differently, but that they also act differently—warrants serious attention. It is better for foreign language students to first encounter the nonverbal differences in earnest among classroom peers than for students to encounter these differences as they enter their countries of study with no meaningful knowledge of how the citizens communicate on a nonverbal level.
Allen, Q.A (1999). Functions of nonverbal communication in teaching and learning a foreign language. The French Review, 72(3), 469-480.
Kellerman, S (1992). “I see what you mean: the role of kinesic behavior in listening and implications for foreign and second language learning.” Applied Linguistics, 13, 239-258.
Kirch, M.S (1979). Non-verbal communication across cultures. The Modern Language Journal, 16(8), 416-423.