Nonverbal communication plays many important roles in intercultural situations. As messages delivered within the verbal channel convey the literal and content meanings of words, the nonverbal channel is relied upon to carry the undercurrent of identity ties and relational meaning. Occurring with or without verbal communication, nonverbal cues provide the context for interpreting and understanding how the verbal message should be understood. As such, they can create either clarity or confusion. Usually, however, they can create intercultural friction and misunderstandings for three main reasons. First, a single nonverbal cue can have different meanings and interpretations in different cultures; second, multiple nonverbal cues are sent simultaneously; and third, a high degree of display rules need to be considered, such as variations in gender, personality, relational distance, socioeconomic status, and the situation.
Nonverbal messages are generally the primary means of conveying emotions, attitudes, and our relationships with others, and we rely on nonverbal cues to "say" things that are difficult to vocalize. A quick look away when one attempts to make eye contact with you can be interpreted in myriad ways, from "I'm too busy" to "I don't want to talk to you" or "I'm embarrassed."
Forms of nonverbal communication
Researchers have identified numerous forms of nonverbal communication: physical appearance, paralanguage (vocal cues), facial expressions, kinesics (body movements), haptics (touch), eye contact, and proxemics (space).
Physical appearance includes body type, height, weight, hair, and skin color. These characteristics affect our daily communications with others. We also wear clothing, and we display artifacts, which are ornaments or adornments that themselves communicate. Our clothing and artifacts mark our unique or co-cultural identity, or the many smaller cultural groups to which we belong within a larger culture. Whatever you wear or don't wear, this says something about you.
Facial expressions falls under a larger category of nonverbal communication, kinesics, or body movement. The face is capable of producing 250,000 different expressions. Many of these vary cross-culturally, but some can be recognized across cultures. These are the facial expressions accompanying emotions represented by SADFISH: sadness, anger, disgust, fear, interest, surprise, and happiness. People of some cultures are taught from a very young age not to show certain emotions, making it more difficult for people from these cultures to identify these emotional expressions when they see them.
The most expressive part of the face is the eyes, and for this reason, many scholars categorize gaze separately from facial expressions. Eye contact is a very powerful communication tool. Holding eye contact can be a sign of respect, truthfulness, attraction, attention, or domination and power, for example. Failure to make eye contact can similarly be an indication of respect, fear, intimidation, lack of interest, and more. Some of this depends on the culture. For example, in most Western cultures, it's considered appropriate behavior to look someone in the eye during a conversation, and to comfortably hold that gaze with the other person. In fact, failing to make eye contact often raises suspicion about ulterior motives. In many Eastern cultures, however, making and maintaining eye contact can indicate disrespect when it involves people of different positions along the social hierarchy; it's considered impolite to look a teacher in the eye, for example.
Gestures, another form of kinesics, are culturally specific. Researchers have sub-divided gestures into four areas: emblems, or gestures shat substitute for words and phrases, such as raising your shoulders for "I don't know"'; illustrators help illustrate what we are trying to say, perhaps by indicating "this big"; regulators are used to control, maintain, or "regulate" the pace and flow of conversation, such as putting up your forefinger to indicate you're not finished speaking; and adaptors are habits or gestures that fulfill some kind of psychological need, such as picking lint off your shirt or playing with your hair. Some cultures rely far more heavily on gestures as accompaniments to their verbal communication than others. For example, the Italian language employs such a high degree of emblems that entire conversations can almost be held using emblems alone. Adaptors are often employed when someone is nervous or perhaps being dishonest, but not always. Because gestures are culturally specific, their intended meaning can become very confusing when communicating across cultures.
Haptics is the study of touch, and its rules vary considerably across cultures. Arabic men often hold hands while most U.S. men wouldn't dare. In the U.S. we often hug hello and good-bye while in many other nations kisses on the cheeks are the standard salutations. There are also different places on the body where touch is appropriate given your relationship with that person. It's generally considered fine around the globe to pat buttocks on sports teams, but try this with your boss and you're probably asking for trouble.
The study of space is proxemics, and it too is culturally regulated. We each live within our personal "bubble", the space around us reserved for intimate others, and feel offended or at least awakened when someone violates the boundary of that space bubble without the permission that accompanies greater intimacy. Some cultures are comfortable speaking at a distance of 12-18 inches with non-intimate others while other cultures need at least 2 feet, and others still require as much as 5-6 feet of distance when speaking with a nonintimate conversation partner. These differences can create discomfort and confusion when you accidentally violate someone's space bubble. The next section discusses this concept in greater detail.
As human beings, we are definitely somewhat territorial, and tend to mark our spaces as a way of claiming our territory. Our boundaries exist in space and time. We feel attached to and develop a sense of ownership over a particular spot. When someone invades our territory, we begin to feel sensitive, vulnerable, and threatened. If our territory is a precious commodity, we tend to react without first thinking through our reactions and actions because we feel violated. This is psychological ownership, not physical ownership. For example, in cities where parking spaces are extremely limited, people complain when others "park in their spot," even though all spots are publically owned. Research suggests that there are three main areas of boundaries: interpersonal boundaries, environmental boundaries, and psychological boundaries.
Psychological boundaries can be defined as the expectation of space around you in an empty elevator or movie theater. How do you feel when someone sits right next to you on a park bench, when there are many other park benches free? These are examples of psychological space. Crowded conditions in cities such as Hong Kong, Mumbai and Bangkok make it nearly impossible for people to experience privacy as we know it in the U.S. Privacy itself can be deemed offensive in some cultures who value a more communal-collectivistic way of living. Some languages have nonexistent or at minimum very different terms for the expression of privacy, indicating the minimal or different importance this concept plays in the lives of the people sharing this language.
Together, these three types of spatial boundaries are invisible, yet we feel uncomfortable and violated when our boundaries are not respected. Cross-culturally this can lead to some discomfort and confusion – it's hard to respect a boundary that you can't see and aren't aware is there.
Tips for intercultural flexibility