Nonverbal communication is a form of communication outside the realm of speech that includes eye contact, facial expressions, other body language, personal space, touching and paralanguage, which involves the pitch volume and intonation of speech. Global communication and multicultural environments present a unique challenge to using and understanding nonverbal communication. Similar gestures and sounds can transmit diverse meanings across cultures.
Eye Contact and Facial Expressions
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Look someone in the eyes. About two seconds of eye contact is considered polite in Western cultures. In Japan, eye contact may be viewed as intimidating. Direct eye contact in Russia is seen as a sign of respect. In Saudi Arabia, indirect eye contact may be construed as ignoring someone. Eastern cultures tend to view the eyes and Western Cultures view the whole face to interpret facial expressions. Emoticons reveal the difference with Japanese emoticons focusing on the eyes for changes in expression and Western emoticons focusing on the mouth.
Other Body Language
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Nod your head. This gesture means "yes" in the United States. In some European countries, such as Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the same gesture means "no." Spitting in public is considered rude and unsanitary in the United States, illegal in Singapore but is common in China. Crossing the legs at the knees is common for Americans and indicates a "closed' position, but this body language is considered rude in the United Arab Emirates where crossing the legs at the ankles is the norm. Men do not touch women in public in the UAE, but body contact between genders is common in the Americas where contact can be viewed anywhere in the spectrum from sexual harassment to respect depending on the context.
Personal Space and Touching
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Stand an arm's length away from someone during a personal conversation. This is an invasion of personal space in the United States where 2 to 3 feet is the norm, but it's acceptable in places like Russia, Turkey and France. Americans and the British tend to reserve touching during conversations to times with friends and family, whereas Italians find no offence in frequent touching.
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Laugh out loud. This is paralanguage. Paralanguage is communication sound that is not speech. Other examples are burping and volume. In Western cultures burping is considered rude. In India and some Eastern cultures, belching indicates satisfaction and expresses appreciation after meals. Using a loud voice in Thailand is impolite and indicates no self-control to Japanese. However, a loud voice in UAE is a sign of strength, and in Germany, volume is a signal of authority.
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Consider the scope of nonverbal communication. The same gestures across cultures and even across genders can communicate significantly diverse meanings. This is true for facial expressions, personal space, touching and paralanguage. Be prepared for personal relationships, business or travel by focusing research on the cultural implications of nonverbal communication for that particular area.