Cultural Differences in Verbal & Nonverbal Communication

Updated April 17, 2017

Cross-cultural communication can be both challenging and rewarding. The challenge comes from understanding gaps in verbal and nonverbal communication patterns. Communication patterns can vary widely across cultures. The rewarding part of cross-cultural communication is the warm feeling you get when you convey a message and know that it is understood.

Volume of Voice

In Canada and Japan, people generally do not raise their voices in normal conversation. However, in Latin America, you may frequently hear people talking loudly and it is not because they are angry.

Power of Words

Children often say, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Words not only hurt, but they can destroy relationships and damage communication efforts. Your message might get lost in translation. Sometimes, an idea or concept does not exist in another language and a translator might not know how to express the idea. Also, some cultures place enormous importance on titles. If you do not address someone correctly, you risk offending that person.

Body Language

Humans have other communication tools aside from words. Body language has been around for far longer than verbal communication. Because it has existed for so long, certain nonverbal cues have different meanings in different societies. What might be acceptable in one culture can be considered rude and improper in another.

Gestures and Eye Contact

Gestures and eye contact are two examples of nonverbal communication that vary widely across cultures. In the United States, for example, making a circle with your thumb and forefinger and holding up your remaining three fingers means that you are fine. However, in most other parts of the world, that symbol is considered vulgar. The level of eye contact made during conversation also differs around the globe. American culture encourages eye contact. On the other hand, the Japanese consider eye contact disrespectful.

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About the Author

Rachel Levy Sarfin has been writing professionally since 1998. She has written for the "Yardley News" and the Healthwise Lifewise blog, and served as the Jerusalem correspondent for the Omanoot website. Sarfin completed her Master of Arts in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.