Cross Cultural Barriers in Nonverbal Communication
When speaking to others, only a fraction of one’s communication is verbal, the larger portion of the message being composed of hand motions, tone of voice, posture, stance, and appearance; in other words, language is mostly nonverbal. However, this does not necessarily mean that all of these signals resonate with the same message for everybody. For example, the “OK” sign made by touching the forefinger and thumb refers to money in some countries, and is an offensive reference to an inappropriate body part in others; the “settle down” hand motion with palms turned down roughly translates to “I will throw my poop at you” or “eat my s**t”in Greece (Edmonds). Nonverbal communication cues differ among various geographic locations in both intentions and interpretations because of cultural differences that develop due to the isolation of communities from one another. Firstly, verbal and nonverbal communication must correlate in order to convey a consistent message.
When a person’s words and their nonverbal cues don’t add up, people tend to feel a sort of hiccup, as “the brain of the person listening might stumble for a minute” (Driver). This inconsistency may lead to mistrust in the intentions or in the reliability of the communicator. For example, if one were to boast about their confidence, yet show a timid stance and shaky voice, the listener might consider the words of the speaker false and discredit them due to two contradicting messages. It is important to use gestures that support the information being conveyed verbally, or else the communicator may come off as untrustworthy, and leave the other person confused (Nova Southeastern University). When what is said and what is showed contradicts one another, the receiver on the information does not know which one is valid, so therefore confusion would ensue the incongruency.
Experts such as Jarrett and Szokan will give self help advice that guarantees success in social situations, job interviews, and any other interactions. They lay out a specific formula of nonverbal cues and their connotations, and assume that these cues are universal throughout all populations. By learning these “cues”, that supposedly make up more than 90% of our language, one is apparently guaranteed success in social situations, job interviews, and relationships (Pease international). However, none of these promises are supported by scientific research; instead, they are only interpreted by people who consider themselves experts in the field. Although these experts may be fairly credible, there is no way of knowing whether their guarantees are valid or not, and whether people of separate isolated cultures can relate with their understanding of nonverbal cues.
Among these suggested nonverbal cues, various gestures and “power postures” will supposedly make you look more confident, and will guarantee success. The “Power Posture” means opening up your body and filling up more space, which has been known to have confidence-boosting effects on the mind (Jarrett). By taking up more space, Janine Driversuggests that one will not only appear dominant and sure of themselves, but will also feel more confident since the stance has reciprocal effects on the mind. Handheld devices should be avoided because they force one’s body into a posture that is not open, and not only sends across a message of low confidence, but also releases stress hormones in the brain that deteriorate a person’s confidence (Cuddy). However, taking up too much space can suggest arrogance and the desire to dominate others around oneself. Signals differ from individual to individual, each being personalized from the moment of birth.
Every person is born with a unique set of muscle movements both in their face and in their body that develops as they grow older. Additionally, each individual has a unique expression in their face that occurs subconsciously when encountered with a particular emotion. From infantry,the brain immediately starts absorbing information from the external world; “how we learn to cope with these emotions is what determines our bodily reactions to them” (Shea). Because no two people have exactly the same life experiences, it is impossible for them to develop identical reactions to various stimuli in their environments. For example, one who was raised in an abusive home might react differently to an aggressive stance than a child raised in a loving, encouraging home.
In that case, an raised hand could cause one child to flinch, and the other to simply look up with a questioning gaze. The chemistry in a person’s brain determines both their outlook on life and on other people. The brain is shaped with every experience that it is subjected to; each interaction, each action, each reaction – they all form new connections throughout the neural pathways. Some things tend to stimulate the brain more than others, such as exercise or sunlight (which release dopamine), though the extent of this impact varies from person to person (Ilardi). Because everyone encounters different environments, they are most likely to have a different outlook on life and on interactions each individual person has with others. This personalized preprogramming in the brain is part of what prevents nonverbal communication from being truly universal.
To recap, both nature and nurture work to distinguish nonverbal communication patterns in different people: how a person is raised and their predisposition to their environment ultimately create a unique interpretation of nonverbal cues in each person. Certain actions and movements release chemicals in the brain. Not only do other’s nonverbal behaviors have the ability to influence others, but one’s behaviors are capable of influencing their own mind as well. For example, when a person smiles, their brain is triggered to release “happy” hormones that have a relaxing and pleasing effect. As a result, their stress levels are lower, which boosts their immunity system and therefore keeps them healthier (Gutman). Therefore, while someone’s predispositions and outside factors can influence their outlooks on life, their own behaviors have a big impact as well.
If outside influences determine how someone behaves and those behaviors in turn determine their mindsets, then an endless cycle of cause and effect is set into place, further differentiating behavioral patterns and interactions. For instance, a child whose brain naturally has high levels of “happy hormones” would smile a lot, which would increase their “happy hormones”, which would increase their positive nonverbal cues, and so on. The same would apply as well to a brain that is naturally more apt to regard its environment as negative – that person would express their emotions both verbally and nonverbally, thus changing their brain to be even more negative than before. The nonverbal cues conveyed from day to day are based on both origin and personality. There are many distinct communication styles – different people may use individualized nonverbal cues based on their culture, personality, and intentions (Ilardi).
Because each person was raised differently and thinks differently, they all have different goals and intentions when it comes to how they want to benefit from any particular interaction. People living in similar environments, as they would in isolated communities, eventually develop similar intentions and interpretations of cues as they would encounter very similar external influences. Though variation does occur from person to person, populations of small communities tend to assign meanings to certain cues, just like we see societies today assigning meaning to commonly used slang words. Cues are influenced by culture and socialization. While other “experts” claim that nonverbal cues are universal throughout all cultures, Stollznow argues that the cues are influenced by culture and socialization, and differ at the individual level.
As opposed to there being a formula for the meaning of cues, each one can actually be interpreted differently depending on context and personality. How a person was raised can greatly influence how they interact with others, what they expect from other people, and how they convey what they are feeling without the use of words or explicitly stating their intentions. This incongruity between cultures can be seen not only in nonverbal communication, but is also mirrored verbal linguistics. Any expression, either verbal or nonverbal, is a release of thought, and the interpretation of that release is based on a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues, with their meanings intertwining to create an overall message (Korzyk). Another point argued by Korzyk is that it is useless to try to study the two forms of communication separately, and that is it better to instead focus on the differences in communication from culture to culture. Verbal language and dialect has evolved over the years within particular groups of people to a point where different areas of a country that speak the same language, such as southern USA and northern USA, will still have different sounds when speaking.
Similarly, interpretation of nonverbal signals would only stay consistent within a community where those signals are widely accepted to mean a certain thing. Just like language and grammar are not congruent between communities, neither is body language, so it is better to focus on the denotative meaning spoken language when interpreting thoughts and intentions from people of other cultures. Cues can be due to many influences, so it is very important to consider all of them. The contrast in knowledge about nonverbal cues between people and scientistscan lead to disagreement and conflict ranging from a personal level to a global level, as some mistakenly are lead to believe that a simple formula applies throughout all cultures and populations. Nonverbal cues can be due to many different factors, so it is important to take into account the various influences on body language before drawing conclusions (Rouse). This knowledge can be very helpful for those who travel to an unfamiliar country or for some reason have the opportunity to interact with people of other cultures.
Some situations in which this information can be helpful include foreign exchange student programs, traveling abroad, going to a conference, or even just vacationing. Knowing that their body language may be incongruent with one’s own could be helpful in clearing up miscommunications between the two parties involved. Nonverbal communication cues differ among various locations in both intentions and interpretations because of cultural differences and isolation of communities from one another. Although experts may advertise a formula for success, preexisting cross-cultural barriers make universal nonverbal communication more complex than what is advertised. Data Analysis For my data collection, I selected five different candid images of actors, and incorporated them into a survey.
The questionnaire went out to sixty-eight people in different countries, on different continents. 34 questionnaires were filled out by people in Taiwan, 18 questionnaires were filled out by people in Maryland, and 15 questionnaires were filled out by people residing in Warsaw, Poland. These surveys tested the person’s interpretation of the nonverbal cues displayed by the people in the picture. My hypothesis was that people in different communities that experienced different socializations growing up would interpret the cues differently from each other. Below are the observations and analysis of interpretations of each individual’s nonverbal cues: In Poland, the first person’s body language was seen as showing interest by a majority of the survey takers (80.
00%). However, most (72.22%) of the survey takers in Columbia, MD saw it as confusion. In Taiwan, the majority (58.82%) described it as surprise. The second person’s body language in the first image was interpreted mostly as confusion in Poland (46.
67%), as interest in Maryland (77.78%), and confusion in Taiwan (42.42%).The third (from the left) person’s body language in the first image was interpreted as hopefulness in both Poland (60.00%), Maryland (77.78%), and Taiwan (47.
06%). The fourth person’s body language in the first image was interpreted as hopefulness in Poland (60.00%), was split between hopefulness and interest and Taiwan (each at 35.29%), however was seen as interest in Maryland (61.11%).
The reason that most of the people’s cues were interpreted differently by people in different countries is that the people taking the survey each have a different perspective based on their own separate culturization and socialization. For example, while the wide eyes and hands gesturing upwards may be interpreted as confusion in Maryland, USA, they are interpreted as a sign of interest in Poland, and can be seen as a sign of confusion in Taiwan. Though shown the same exact image, people from different cultures derived entirely different meanings from most of the people’s body language in the images. In the second image, the man’s nonverbal cues were interpreted as showing disinterest in Poland (53.33%) and Taiwan (57.58%), but were seen more as displaying awkwardness in Maryland (83.
33%). The woman’s cues were interpreted as anger in Poland (71.43%) and Taiwan (60.61%), but were seen as confusion in Maryland (72.22%). The third image portrayed both a man and a woman, the man’s cues being seen as showing annoyance in Poland (53.
33%), confusion in Maryland (55.56%), and judgement in Taiwan (75.53%). The women’s cues were interpreted as annoyance in Poland (73.33%), and judgement in Maryland (55.
56%) and Taiwan (42.42%). The first person on the left in the fourth image was mostly seen as showing excitement in Poland (62.50%) and Taiwan (50.00%), and pride in Maryland (77.
78%). The second person in the fourth image conveyed messages that were interpreted as doubt in Poland (62.50%), annoyance in Maryland (72.22%), and doubt in Taiwan (40.63%).
The third person’s cues were interpreted as pride in Poland (75.00%), interest in Maryland (44.44%), and doubt in Taiwan (43.75%). The cues of the fourth person were interpreted as doubt in Poland (62.
50%) and Taiwan (50.00%), and sympathy in MD (61.11%). Lastly, the fifth person from the left in the right side of the fourth picture was seen as showing annoyance in Poland (43.75%), sympathy in Maryland (66.67%), and doubt in Taiwan (57.
58%). The final image portrayed only a girl and boy sitting on a couch. The girl’s nonverbal cues were interpreted as fear in anger in Poland (50.00%), shock in Maryland (66.67%), and fear in Taiwan (61.76%).
The boy’s nonverbal cues were interpreted as fear in Poland (43.75%) and Maryland (61.11%), but as shock in Taiwan (57.58%). As with the interpretations of the first person’s cues on the first image, all of these varied reactions can be accounted for by different personalities, cultures, and societies transforming the perception of other people’s body language, thus meaning that communities separate from each other develop their own sort of nonverbal language.
Although this data collection method technically did show a differencein the interpretation of cues, it was limited in scope, as it was restrained by the resources I had. In Taiwan and Poland, I couldn’t personally distribute questionnaires, so I had to ask friends and family to distribute them for me. A lot of my family in Poland is old-fashioned and doesn’t have the same access to technology that we do, so most of them could not partake in this survey. The experiment would have been more accurate had the survey been distributed to a larger amount of people, so that patterns could be more constant. That way, if a large percentage of people had interpreted body language a certain way, then it would be apparent that it was a significant difference as opposed to a random coincidence.
In addition, the demography of the people tested in different countries was different. In Maryland, the survey was distributed to various teens attending high schools in Howard County. In Taiwan, the surveys were given to a group of grad school students. The surveys in Poland were distributed to a group of elder relatives. Therefore, there is no way of telling if the data was a result of residence in a separate community or simply because of a difference in age and level of education.
If I could do this experiment over again, I would try to find a way to distribute the questionnaires to a larger random sample throughout the country in order to get more accurate results. Lastly, the pictures chosen may have had an influence on how a person answered the questions, as they are from famous TV shows, and people who have seen those shows may already know the context of the picture and use that to judge the character’s emotions, as opposed to using their own interpretations of the nonverbal cues. However, I still do believe that socialization changes a person’s interpretation of nonverbal cues. Although a change in demographics may skew the data assessing interpretations by country, it still demonstrates a separate community. The elderly people in Poland are a separate community, as are the grad students in Taiwan and the high school students in Maryland. The fact that they interpret body language of various people differently still reflects how their community has shaped their perception of nonverbal cues.
Works Cited Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” Ted. TED Conferences, June 2012. Web.
23 Sept. 2014. Driver, Janine, and Mariska Van. Aalst. You Say More than You Think: The 7-day Plan for Using the New Body Language to Get What You Want. New York: Crown, 2010.
Print. Edmonds, Molly. “How Do Culturally Different People Interpret Nonverbal Communication? – HowStuffWorks.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks, 2014.
Web. 30 Oct. 2014. Gutman, Ron. “The Hidden Power of Smiling.” Ted Talks.
TED Conferences, Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. Ilardi, Steve.
“Brain Chemistry Lifehacks: Steve Ilardi at TEDxKC.” TEDxKC.Youtube. Web.
04 Dec. 2014. Jarrett, Christian. “The Four Ways you can use Body Language to Influence Success.” 99u. Adobe Systems 2014.
Web. 02 Oct. 2014. Kor?yk, Krzysztof. “The Integrative And Structuring Function Of Speech In Face-To-Face Communication From The Perspective Of Human-Centered Linguistics.” Fundamentals Of Verbal & Nonverbal Communication & The Biometric Issue 18.
1 (2007): 92-99. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.
Pease International. http://www.peaseinternational.com. Web. 31 Oct.
2014. Rouse, Scott. “How to Kill Your Body Language Frankenstein and Inspire the Villagers: Scott Rouse at TEDxNashville.” TEDxNashville.YouTube. Web.
04 Dec. 2014. Shea, Chris. “The Secrets of Nonverbal Communication.” TEDxMerserside.
YouTube. Web. 04 Dec. 2014. Stollznow, Karen.
“Bad language: body language–(don’t) read my lips.” Skeptic[Altadena, CA] 17.1 (2011): 6+. Science in Context. Web. 29 Oct.
2014. University, Nova Southeastern. “Communication: The Importance of Nonverbal Cues.” Communication: The Importance of Nonverbal Cues (n.d.
): n. pag. Nova.edu. Nova.
Web. 15 Oct. 2014. Works Consulted “Body Language: Understanding Non-Verbal Communication.” Mind Tools.
Mind Tools Ltd, 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. Cherry, Kendra.
“Types of Nonverbal Communication.” About Education. About.com, 2014. Web. 23 Sept.
2014. Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” Ted. TED Conferences, June 2012.
Web. 23 Sept. 2014. Driver, Janine, and Mariska Van. Aalst.
You Say More than You Think: The 7-day Plan for Using the New Body Language to Get What You Want. New York: Crown, 2010. Print. Edmonds, Molly. “How Do Culturally Different People Interpret Nonverbal Communication? – HowStuffWorks.” HowStuffWorks.
HowStuffWorks, 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. Gutman, Ron.
“The Hidden Power of Smiling.” Ted Talks. TED Conferences, Mar. 2011. Web.
11 Dec. 2014. Ilardi, Steve. “Brain Chemistry Lifehacks: Steve Ilardi at TEDxKC.” TEDxKC.YouTube.
Web. 04 Dec. 2014. Jarrett, Christian. “The Four Ways you can use Body Language to Influence Success.
” 99u. Adobe Systems 2014. Web. 02 Oct. 2014.
Kor?yk, Krzysztof. “The Integrative And Structuring Function Of Speech In Face-To-Face Communication From The Perspective Of Human-Centered Linguistics.” Fundamentals Of Verbal & Nonverbal Communication & The Biometric Issue 18.1 (2007): 92-99. Academic Search Complete.
Web. 5 Nov. 2014. “Learning Disabilities and Asperger’s Syndrome.” National Center for Learning Disabilities.
National Center for Learning Disabilities Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Oct. 2014. Mehrabian, Albert.
2009. Silent Messages–A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language). Personality & Emotion Tests & Software: Psychological Books & Articles of Popular Interest. Los Angeles, CA: self-published NCLD Editorial Team. “ADHD General Information.
” National Center for Learning Disabilities. National Center for Learning Disabilities Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Oct.
2014. Pease International. http://www.peaseinternational.com.
Web. 31 Oct. 2014. Rouse, Scott. “How to Kill Your Body Language Frankenstein and Inspire the Villagers: Scott Rouse at TEDxNashville.” TEDxNashville.
YouTube. Web. 04 Dec. 2014. Scheflen, Albert E.
“Body Language and the Social Order; Communication as a Behavioral Control.” ERIC. Institute of Education Sciences, n.d. Web.
11 Dec. 2014. Segal, Jeanne, Melinda Smith, Greg Boose, and Jaelline Jaffe. “Nonverbal Communication.” : Improving Nonverbal Skills & Reading Body Language.
Helpguide.org, May 2014. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.
Shea, Chris. “The Secrets of Nonverbal Communication.” TEDxMerserside.YouTube. Web.
04 Dec. 2014. Step, Richard. “NOTES: “You Say More than You Think” by Janine Driver.”NOTES: “You Say More Than You Think” by Janine Driver (n.
d.): n. pag. Richardstep.com.
Richardstep. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. Stollznow, Karen. “Bad language: body language–(don’t) read my lips.
” Skeptic[Altadena, CA] 17.1 (2011): 6+. Science in Context. Web. 29 Oct.
2014. Szokan, Nancy. “Body language that conveys power.” Washington Post 30 July 2014.Science in Context. Web.
11 Dec. 2014. Tanguay, Pamela B. “Nonverbal Learning Disorder.” NLD on the Web. N.
p., 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2014. Tomlin, Cassie.
“Make the best impression: knock ’em dead in any social situation.”Natural Health May-June 2013: 104. Science in Context. Web. 11 Dec.
2014. University, Nova Southeastern. “Communication: The Importance of Nonverbal Cues.” Communication: The Importance of Nonverbal Cues (n.d.
): n. pag. Nova.edu. Nova. Web.
15 Oct. 2014.