The adage “actions speak louder than words” underscores, in essence, the importance of non-verbal communication. In our global society, where intercultural situations occur often, non-verbal interaction is especially significant. People all over the world use non-verbal communication. Its meaning varies across cultures, however, and what is acceptable in one culture may be taboo in another. All of these variations make misinterpretation a barrier in non-verbal communication. A social and cultural environment, rather than our genetic heritage, determines the non-verbal communication system that we use.
In simple terms, "intercultural non-verbal communication" refers to all conscious or unconscious stimuli other than the spoken word between communicating parties. These non-verbal processes sometimes account for as much as 70 per cent of communication. Because of cultural differences, the potential for misunderstanding and disagreement regarding non-verbal communication is great. Therefore, successful interaction in intercultural settings requires just as much understanding of non-verbal messages as the verbal ones.
Non-verbal communication is made up of four main categories: kinesics, proxemics, paralanguage and chronemics.
Kinesics, or body language, refers to the body movements in communication, such as facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures and touch.
Proxemics refers to the study of the use of space in non-verbal communication, meaning anything from architecture and furniture to the distance between people who interact in a given situation.
Paralanguage makes up all the sounds people produce with their voices that are not words, including laughter, tone and pace of voice, and “empty” words and phrases such as “um” and “you know.”
Chronemics is the study of the use of time in non-verbal communication, including people's understanding of present, past and future.
Common rituals such as nodding in agreement and greeting friends vary considerably from culture to culture. A handshake is the appropriate way to greet someone in some countries such as the United States; a warm embrace is used in Latin America, "namaste" is spoken in India and a bow of the head is done in Japan.
While a Japanese person points his forefinger to his face when referring to himself, a Chinese person points to his nose and a North American usually points to his chest.
In some cultures, people focus their gaze on the eyes or face of the conversational partner; in others, they must use only peripheral gaze or no gaze at all.
It is very common to greet by hugging a friend or a family member, to touch the person you are speaking to in some cultures. In others, though, people seldom touch at all when speaking.
Usually, people keep a "social distance" between themselves and the person to whom they speak. This distance amount differs from culture to culture. If someone stands or sits very close when she speaks with another person, she may see the other's attempt to widen the space between them as evidence of coldness, condescension or a lack of interest. Those who prefer having more social distance, or personal space, may view attempts to get closer as pushy, disrespectful or aggressive.
Paralanguage represents the vocal cues that accompany spoken language. Through pitch, speed, volume, pause and silence, people confer emotional and intellectual meanings to their messages.
Chinese people value silence more than the use of words; they believe it brings inner peace and wisdom. On the other hand, North Americans tend to think silence has no communication. While a Chinese person would consent to a question through silence, an American would interpret silence as uncertainty.
Time is one of the most central differences that separate cultures in the way of doing things. For Western countries, time is quantitative, measured in units that reflect progress. It is logical, sequential and focused in the now, moving toward the future and away from the past. In Eastern countries, however, time feels like it has unlimited continuity. India is the best place to depict the Eastern idea of time. Time moves endlessly through various cycles, becoming and disappearing. Time is infinite, stretching far beyond the human lifetime. According to an essay by Michelle LeBaron on BeyondIntractability.org, "There is a certain timeless quality to time, an aesthetic almost too intricate and vast for the human mind to comprehend."
Non-verbal communication is one of the key aspects of communication, and it is especially important in a high-context culture. Its multiple functions include repeating, accentuating, complementing and contradicting a verbal message. This type of communication also regulates interactions, such as non-verbal cues conveying when a person should speak or not speak. Finally, non-verbal communication can even substitute a verbal message through gestures and facial expressions, especially when people do not speak the same language.
Each of these characteristics influences intercultural communication and can be responsible for conflict or the escalation of conflict when it leads to bad communication or misinterpretation.