Etiquette Involved in Nonverbal and Verbal Conversation

It is said that nonverbal communication conveys as much as 93% of our overall communication messages. This is perhaps why it is said that actions speak louder than words. Nonverbal cues are our actions and behaviors, facial expressions and gestures, and vocal cues. They cover considerations of personal space, touch, body movement, and tone of voice, among others. In considerations of courtesy and etiquette, you want to be sure that your nonverbal communication cues are sending the same courteous, respectful, considerate, and honest messages as your words themselves. You also want to pay close attention to the nonverbal cues of those with whom you are interacting, and try as best you can to catch and accurately interpret the signals they are sending you.

The list of possible nonverbal communication cues that etiquette includes are far too numerous to cover here. Rather than list all of the possibilities, it's important to be aware of a couple of things about nonverbal communication characteristics.

Your posture conveys interest and attention. Slumping or slouching while you speak suggests laziness, disrespect, and disinterest in the other person. A smile sends the message of warmth, openness and friendliness, but false smiles appear insincere and never-ending smiles rouse suspicion. A frown or furrowed brow conveys worry or anger, despite the words you use.

Gestures should be used mildly to accentuate a point, but overdoing gestures becomes an unwelcome distraction. It's best to avoid fidgeting-type gestures, such as playing with your hair, tie, or jewelry; drumming your fingers; shaking your leg incessantly; snapping the clip on a ballpoint pen, and jiggling the change or keys in your pocket.

Nodding can indicate understanding as well as agreement. Too much head-nodding can label you as silly or overly eager to please, particularly within a business context. Pointing at others can be construed as hostile or negative, whatever the pointer's intent. It also brings attention to someone who probably doesn't want to be the object of curious glances and stares.

It's important to pay attention to features of the voice as well. Vocal volume, tone, and rate of speech should be appropriate. Too loud a voice may unnerve, and too soft requires listeners to ask you to repeat yourself. Too fast of speech is difficult to understand, while too slow may try the listener's patience. Inflections make the speech more interesting while monotone dulls it. Enunciation is pronouncing words correctly as well as completing them. Dropping letters and slurring words can make it appear you're mumbling. On the other hand, enunciating too perfectly appears affected. Accents are a normal part of life – we all have one. It's not appropriate to make fun of others' accents.

Eye contact is perhaps the single most powerful piece of nonverbal communication. The eyes convey so much. Looking into the other person's eyes during a conversation shows your interest in that conversation. Too little eye contact, such as either party not looking into the other's eyes at all, can indicate disinterest and lack of attention. If your listener won't look at you while you're speaking, you can stop mid-sentence and ask what they find so fascinating. Too much eye contact, however, such as staring, can be perceived as strange or threatening. It can also send unintended messages of attraction or interest. The best strategy is to shift your gaze to other parts of the face occasionally.

You may be able to say with your body and actions what you can't say with your words, lest you risk offense. For example, if someone moves in to hug or kiss you as a greeting and you don't want this, you can smile and extend your hand or slightly back away rather than allowing them to come in. If someone invites you somewhere you really don't want to go, you can pause for a moment in reply, before offering a polite refusal, allowing your brief silence to send the message that "no, thank you" or perhaps an alternative suggestion is your intended response.

In Conversations

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Be sure you show interest in the other person in your conversations. Ask about their lives if it is appropriate, and certainly something that you believe is of interest to them.

As a conversationalist, it's important to know when to stop talking. Those who talk too much are most likely to talk carelessly, while those who talk too little can seem aloof. When someone pauses to think of a word, don't jump in to supply it unless asked. Similarly, don't "improve" on others' stories. Be careful about repeating yourself, and watch your corrections of others' grammar or pronunciation. Go easy on the slang, and use foreign phrases judiciously.


Etiquette is the outward demonstration of respect and courtesy for others. One might think that these expressions are universal, but in fact, they are not at all. Every etiquette guideline is up for redefining in cross-cultural contexts, as every cultural ideology has its own perceptions and demonstrations of courtesy, respect, honesty, and civility. Considerations of generosity of spirit, deference to others, and displays of respect vary in different cultural contexts. Applying the guidelines of etiquette from your own culture in a different cultural context can inadvertently violate the etiquette codes of that culture. In the end, despite your best intentions to demonstrate courtesy and respect by adhering closely to the guidelines of courtesy you've been taught from your home culture, you have shown yourself to be arrogant, clueless, and discourteous.

Numerous examples abound. Handshaking is one area. In the United States, a firm handshake with solid eye contact is a sign of confidence and respect, while in many other places in the world, the same handshake and eye contact is entirely self-centered and disrespectful as a show of arrogance and entitlement.

Clothing is another area. Low-cut and see-through blouses may indicate poor judgment in the United States, but in other cultures, where such attire is the norm, this is much less true. Contrarily, in many Middle Eastern nations women are expected to wear extremely loose dresses that cover neck to ground and a head scarf that covers all of their hair and at times their faces except for the eyes – even as the mercury rises and tops 100 degrees. In these cultures, such attire is an indication of respect, courtesy, and good etiquette. Courtesy is shown to the men of these cultures by women not showing their bodies and making the men uncomfortable. At the same time, respect is given to women as they are not leered at lasciviously when dressed in this fully covered way. However, people of many cultures of the world disagree with this premise entirely, contending that insisting women dress in this way is in itself an indication of discourtesy and disrespect. Thus, courtesy and respect are in the eye of the cultural beholder.

Physical contact is another area where cultural guidelines differ substantially. In many Asian cultures, there are so many people that it is customary to cram into each other on the subway or bus, with each person literally taking up only the space his or her body needs and everyone else filling all of the space around them. When the population equates to more than 6,000 people per square acre, public transportation is crowded indeed. Bodily contact cannot be avoided, with shorter people squishing under the arms of taller people to find space on the car or bus, and full body contact the absolute norm. To wait for a train or bus that would make you and the other riders less crammed and more comfortable would mean to wait for hours and hours. In the United States, cities are not this crowded, so public transportation codes of etiquette call for allowing each person her own space to be comfortable. At the same time, people of many Asian cultures bow to one another as a respectful greeting rather than exchanging bodily contact of any form, as this bowing is considered a sign of deep respect and consideration – it is most decidedly the proper thing to do.

Dining etiquette practices vary as much as everything else does. In Northern Europe for example, it is considered impolite to place one hand on your lap while eating with the other, as placing one hand below the table begs the question to the other diners of what that hand is doing down there. Instead, both hands should be clearly visible above the table. Further, both hands are active in the eating process as the knife and fork are almost always used together, and the side of the fork is not used to cut food. Both arms rest on the table's edge at the forearm while chewing and between cutting more food. Generally, toothpicks may be used and lipstick applied at the table provided the other hand covers the mouth during the process. In other cultures, it is entirely acceptable to eat with your hands, and pull from a dish at the center of the table with your hands. Etiquette in some of these cultures calls for touching food only with your left hand as the right hand is used at the toilet. Talking with food in your mouth is more acceptable in some cultures than in others, and even the U.S. code of not putting more food in your mouth than you can chew with your mouth closed changes in some cultures and situations. For example, in some Japanese cultures, when eating sushi, it is inappropriate to take bites of the sushi, no matter how large the piece. Rather, the entire slice of roll is inserted into the mouth at once, with a hand covering the open mouth while chewing if necessary.

Tipping in other cultures along the same guidelines as you tip in the United States is more problematic than meets the eye. In the U.S., tips are often considered a part of the person's wage, which is why the standard proportion is so high (15-20%). However, in most other cultures, all workers already receive a fair wage from their employers. Tips are a bonus, and they are small indeed – a few coins in most places, change brought from having paid the bill. You might believe you are being generous when tipping the percentage you're used to, 15-20%, and of course the server will be amazed and grateful at your generosity. But in fact these practices dig deeply into the cultural fabric in unintended and undesirable ways. It's important to remember that whatever nationality you are, when overseas, your behavior helps build a reputation for everyone from that nationality. It also develops expectations. Thus, when you tip 20% of the bill's total in less developed and lower economic countries, here is what happens: you begin and contribute to an expectation that all Americans will tip 20%; you are viewed as rich and flashy with your money; you contribute to social discontent. Suddenly the American diners who come after you are also expected to tip 20% and when they don't, servers are disappointed, frustrated, or worse. This also creates frustration with and disappointment in local diners who tip in accordance with their own culture's customs because they are suddenly deemed "cheap" and the service staff doesn't clamor to serve them. This also leads to people from that culture believing Americans have loads of money to freely give away, so it increases aggressive financial behavior directed toward Americans in particular. It also leads the generously tipped individual to great dissatisfaction with her own financial situation, which cannot afford the luxury of tipping so generously. Over time, as these dissatisfied individuals grow and multiply in numbers, social dissatisfaction increases, and rather than being grateful for a 20% tip from an American diner, the populace becomes angry and frustrated with Americans who flash around their money and don't want American tourists in their culture any longer. This can have catastrophic, violent, and even deadly effects. In short, overtipping may appear a generous gesture, but you are damaging the local culture and the individuals who serve you by distorting their expectations.

Sitting positions vary as well. In some cultures, it is entirely acceptable to place your feet on the seat across from you on public transportation, provided you first place a newspaper on the seat under your dirty shoes. In the United States, crossing your feet atop the desk is a comfortable sitting position for some as well as a show of dominance, but woe be to the American overseas who shows the soles of his shoes to those in his presence; he has just lost the respect of everyone in the room with this seemingly minor but actually major infraction – and he's managed to help create a bad name for all of his countrymen in the process. Reading a newspaper over the shoulder of another passenger on public transportation is considered impolite in the United States, but this is the norm in many cultures and not in any way an interpersonal affront.

Further, some cultures have very rigid and different behavioral codes for men and for women, including when walking together, passing through doorways, and speaking order, among many other areas. To violate these codes, even unwittingly, can bring great offense.

In some cultures, asking questions in the classroom is a sign of disrespect to the teacher, suggesting that the teacher wasn't clear or complete in her explanation. Making eye contact with the teacher or an elder is considered disrespectful as well. In the United States, both of these behaviors generally indicate courtesy and respect, as they demonstrate thoughtfulness and recognition of the other person's efforts and presence. Further, copying another's work, whether published or that of a fellow student, is considered the highest form of dishonesty in the United States academic system, but in many cultures, it is the absolute norm and actually an indication of respect to the author.


There are etiquette books and guidelines for these cultures, sure. And they may or may not be accurate for the place you're going at the time you're going, or the people with whom you're interacting at home. The best source of learning guidelines for different cultures is your power of observation.

The trick in learning etiquette from others is choosing the right person or people to emulate. How can you know if what this person is doing is considered good etiquette in his culture or not? To answer this question, you can revert to the foundational principles of etiquette, and consider whether this person demonstrates these principles in his behavior as you observe it.

To reiterate, the foundational principles of etiquette include thoughtful and careful behavior to not inconvenience others or worse, inadvertently bother or offend them in any way. They are a combination of common sense, generosity of spirit, and a few specific codes that help us interact with thoughtfulness. Manners rest on principles of respect, consideration, and honesty.

Therefore, when you are choosing an etiquette teacher in another culture, consider whether that person is careful to demonstrate thoughtful and careful behavior to others, however thoughtfulness and care might manifest there. Consider whether this person's behavior seems rooted in generosity of spirit with an attempt to not bother or offend others in any way. (Using common sense as a guide goes out the window in most cross-cultural situations, as that, too, proves to be culturally defined.) Choose your teacher and teachers with care, then merely observe and emulate. Also, getting yelled at or glared at is a good indication that your behavior is considered out of line in that culture, even if that same behavior is considered of the highest courtesy in your own culture.

That said, there are also times when you must prepare in advance for a guest from another culture, and you do not have the luxury of learning etiquette guidelines for their culture using a live teacher you have selected in that culture. In these cases, resorting to a guidebook is probably the best solution, at least as a starting place. If you are taking a language course and the teacher is native to the foreign culture, you can – and should – ask the teacher every question you can think of that you believe will be relevant to your upcoming experience. You might even request a role play in the classroom to practice both the language structures as well as proper behavior for the situation. If you're not in a language course, consider watching films and television shows from the target culture, and observe the behavior of the most courteous actors very carefully. Actors are cast into roles of courteous and discourteous characters, so be sure to observe any subtitles and nonverbal communication cues when deciding who should be your etiquette teachers.