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Nonverbal Communication in Cultures

By David Carnes ; Updated June 13, 2017

People communicate ideas to each other in two ways--verbal and nonverbal. It is easy to underestimate the importance of nonverbal communication and the differences between modes of nonverbal communication among different peoples. A basic knowledge of nonverbal communication in different cultures will help you avoid unnecessary misunderstandings when dealing with people of different backgrounds.


Nonverbal communication can be categorized into several different types. These include bodily proximity, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, touching and body position. In "high-contact" cultures, close bodily proximity, exaggerated facial expressions and touching are far more acceptable than they are in "low-contact" cultures. Many low-contact cultures compensate for their lack of overt expression with a greater reliance on subtler forms of nonverbal communication using the eyes.


Middle Eastern cultures are among the world's most high-contact cultures. The most low-contact cultures are located in East Asia, while European cultures including the United States fall somewhere in between. Nevertheless, cultures cannot always be neatly categorized as "high-contact" or "low-contact". The Islamic societies of the Middle East, for example, are extremely low-contact when it comes to touching between genders. In parts of rural China, on the other hand, it is acceptable for young males to hold hands in public--it is not seen as an indication of homosexuality as it would be in the West.


Differences in nonverbal communication can result in great misunderstandings between people of different cultures. A close approach to another's "personal space" by a person from a high-contact culture, for example, might be seen as an invitation to fight by a person from a low-contact culture. The Asian custom of avoiding eye contact to show respect for authority might be seen by an American policeman as an indication of deceit or guilt, consistent with attitudes prevalent in high-contact cultures.


As globalization takes hold and international travel increases, communication between cultures is becoming increasingly important. Although foreign language courses typically include material on nonverbal communication, it may soon become necessary to expand the teaching of cross-cultural nonverbal communication into a separate subject, especially in schools of business and diplomacy.

Expert Insight

Social anthropologist Edward T. Hall reports that in the average conversation, even between two persons from the same culture, at least 65 percent of all meaning is derived from nonverbal communication.

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