Cross-Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

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Sending and receiving messages without using words is a key aspect of communication and can have profound implications on the interactions one has with people from other cultures. Nonverbal communication can include touch, glance, eye contact, proximity, gestures, facial expressions and posture.

We often use nonverbal cues to reinforce a verbal message, such as pointing in the direction while saying directions, or to substitute for a verbal message, such as putting a finger to the lips to indicate a need for quiet or nodding the head instead of saying yes. Some nonverbal communication methods that are acceptable in our culture may be considered offensive in another.

Hand Gestures

Hand gestures carry different meanings across cultures. For example, American tourists may want to be careful using the OK sign when on holiday in Europe as it is considered an obscene gesture with sexual implications in many European cultures. Placing both hands at the side of your head and pointing up with the forefingers signals anger in some cultures but means that one wants sex in others. Using one's hands to count or point can also be problematic; while Americans tend to point using the index finger, most Asians consider this to be rude.


Different cultures have different rules regarding posture. While Americans do not bow to each other, Japanese people bow to demonstrate rank. Slouching is considered rude in most Northern European countries, and putting one's hands in one's pockets is considered disrespectful in Turkey, as is sitting with one's legs crossed. In addition, showing the soles of one's feet is considered offensive in Thailand and many Arabic countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Facial Expressions

The meaning and use of facial expressions can vary from culture to culture. For example, many Asian cultures suppress facial expressions as much as possible, which can frustrate communication with people from a culture that relies on facial expressions to demonstrate feelings.

Eye Contact

Western cultures tend to view eye contact as an indicator of interest or attention. A prolonged gaze, however, can be viewed as a sign of sexual interest. People in Arabic cultures maintain prolonged eye contact, believing it demonstrates interest, and claim that it helps them understand the truthfulness of a person. A person who looks away can be seen as untrustworthy. Japanese, African, Latin American and Caribbean cultures, in contrast, avoid eye contact as a sign of respect.

Interpersonal Space

Most cultures make distinctions between intimate, personal, social and public space; however, each culture differs in the space attributed to each category. Arab males tend to sit closer to one another than American males. They also have greater eye contact and tend to speak in louder voices. Arab cultures generally like to interact with others at close distances -- close enough to feel the other person's breath. Such closeness would be considered an invasion of one's personal space in America and other Western cultures.