Nonverbal Communication: Speaking Without Words
Non-verbal communication is “silent” communication, including the use of gestures, postures, position, eye contact, facial expressions, and conversational distance.
If we don’t understand the non-verbal communication from different culture, it is possible that we can make a mistake of reading the other person incorrectly. Some forms of non-verbal signals are the same and universal and they have the same meaning or interpretation. But, the other forms are different and they have different meaning too, or no meaning in the other culture.
Craig Storti in “Figuring Out” as quoted by Wienchecki (1999) mentions three main categories of non-verbal communication in the cross-cultural context. These are:
1. Non-verbal behaviours which exist in your own culture and in the target culture which have the same meaning in both cultures.
2. Non-verbal behaviours which exist in both cultures, but which are assigned different meanings in the two cultures.
3. Non-verbal behaviours which have meaning in one culture but no meaning at all in the target language.
"He didn't look at me once. I know he's guilty. Never trust a person who doesn't look you in the eye." --American Police Officer--
"Americans smile at strangers. I don't know what to think of that." --Russian Engineer--
"Americans seem cold. They seem to get upset when you stand close to them." -- Jordanian Teacher--
A. The American police officer, the Russian engineer, and the Jordanian teacher made these comments about interactions they had with someone from a different culture. Their comments demonstrate how people can misinterpret nonverbal communication that is culturally different from their own. Of course, this can also happen in conversation among individuals of the same cultural background, but it doesn't usually happen as often or to the same degree. Many people think that all they really need to pay attention to in a conversation is the spoken word. This is far from the truth!
B. Language studies traditionally emphasized verbal and written communication. Since about the 1960's, however, researchers seriously began to consider what takes place without words in conversations. In some instances, more nonverbal than verbal communication occurs. For example, if you ask an obviously depressed person, "What's wrong?" and he answers "Nothing, I'm fine." you probably won't believe him. Or when an angry person says "Let's forget this subject. I don't want to talk about it anymore!" she hasn't stopped communicating. Her silence and withdrawal continue to convey emotional meaning.
C. The question now is “Which communication is practiced more in our daily life?” Is it verbal communication or non-verbal communication? Albert Mehrabian as quoted also by Pease found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only) and 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55 percent non-verbal. One study done in the United States showed that 93 percent of a message was transmitted by the speakers’ tone of voice and facial expressions. Only 7 percent of the person's attitude was conveyed by words. Apparently, we express our emotions and attitudes more nonverbally than verbally.
Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication
Communication is the way to show our messages for another people. And people always show their messages through communication or conversation. Conversation can pass through two ways. That is, verbal and nonverbal communication. Verbal communication is a way to show our feeling or person’s attitude that convey by words. While nonverbal communication is a way to show person’s attitude that convey gestures, facial expression, eye contact, and speaker’s tone or voice.
Gestures or body positioning are movements of specific body that carry meaning. Facial expression is the showing of expression carry meaning that is determined by situations and relationship. Eye contact is a way to show intimacy, attention, and influence. It is important because can create communication barries. Nonverbal communication usually expresses our feeling or meaning. Such as, happiness, sadness, fear, affection and so on.
Every country, have different culture to show their feeling or meaning in nonverbal communication. And it was expressed in a similar nonverbal way throughout world. May these differences can be a source of confusion for foreigeners. Let’s take an example to more comprehend this chapter. In Arab, people express grief openly, and it is a polite behaviour for them. But, for Asian people, express grief openly or mourn out loud is an impolite behaviour and they are more subdued to show their feeling.
Every country have different meaning for a nonverbal communication. In one culture, polite behaviour that usual communication may be seen as unusual or impolite communication in another. But, we can interpret nonverbal communication in another with look their gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and speaker’s tone. So, we can get the message which delivered by foreigeners.
Gesture and Body Positioning
There are some definitions about gesture:
- Gestures are specific body movement that carry meaning (Levine and Adelman: 1993: 103)
- A gesture is a form of nonverbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of speech or together and in parallel with spoken word (Wikipedia).
Gesture can include the movement, or motion of hands, head, face, and other parts of body. Gesture is different from physical nonverbal communication which has no particular messages, such as purely expressive displays, proxemics - study of measurable distances between people as they interact (wikipedia), or displays of joint attention – interactionally-achieved when one person, animal or agent alerts another to a stimulus by means of eye-gazing, finger-pointing or other verbal or nonverbal indication (wikipedia).
We are talking about culture and gesture, the specific gesture can have different meaning in each culture. For instance, “O.K.” gesture in the American culture is defined as a symbol for money in Japan. Hand motions also can mean “Come here”, “Go away” “It’s O.K.”, “Hello”, and so on. The common gesture in one culture may become strange in other culture. For example, in United States, cueing someone with the palm up is common, but in Philippines, Korea, and parts of Latin America as well as other countries, palm up person is impolite, because there is only animal would be cued with the palm up. Sometimes, we spontaneously combine the gesture with spoken word, because gestures are identically with speech.
- Body Positioning
The body posture meant something as if we were communicating through body positioning. That posture could communicate people’s emotion such as like or dislike.
Stephen Boyd says that postures reflect self-confidence and enthusiasm for your subject. According to Boyd, folding your arms while speaking shows that you are bored, tired, or indifferent. By crossing your arms in front of you, it is as if you are blocking entrance to yourself and to what you are saying. This not only applies to speeches, but to personal interaction as well.
Body posture or body positioning is important when we talk to someone, especially from different culture, because in different culture or country, the specific posture can meant different. Most of Americans businessmen enjoy relaxing with their feet up on their desks, but for Saudi Arabian or Thai, that is very abusive because the sole of one’s foot is assumed as the dirtiest part of the body. So, we have to be careful with our posture when we talk to someone whose different culture in order to not touch them, and also for keep our self-conception.
Facial expressions are expression that is determined by situations and relationships. For example, the smile is typically an expression of pleasure in American culture. In Indonesian culture, the smile is an expression of pleasure too. Yet it is also has other functions. A boy’s smile at girls does not carry the same meaning as the smile he gives to his father or his teacher. A mother’s smile at her children does not carry the same meaning as the smile she gives to a doctor or waiter. A smile may show affection, convey politeness, or disguise true feeling. For instance, a student’s smile at a teacher or an employee’s smile at employer. It is also is a source of confusion across cultures. For example, many people in Russia consider smiling at strangers in public to be unusual and even suspicious behavior. Yet many Americans smile freely at strangers in public pieces (although this is less common in big cities). Some Russians believe that Americans smile in the wrong places; some Americans believe that Russian do not smile enough. In Southeast Asian cultures, a smile is frequently used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment. Vietnamese people may tell the sad story of how they had to leave their country but end the story with a smile.
Our faces reveal emotions and attitudes, but we should not attempt to “read” people from another culture as we would”read” someone from own culture. If we want to “read” people from another culture, we should know their culture first. The degree of facial expressiveness one exhibits varies among individuals and cultures. The fact that members of one culture do not express their emotions as openly as do members of another does not mean that they do not experience emotions. Rather, there are cultural restrains on the amount of nonverbal expressiveness permitted. For example, in public and in formal situations many Japanese do not show their emotion as freely as American do. Another example, many counselor or members of parliaments express their emotions at meeting freely. Although in Indonesian culture, it is not in the respect of norms. More privately and with friends, Japanese and Americans seem to show their emotions similarly. Many teachers in the United States have a difficult time knowing whether their Japanese students understand and enjoy their lessons. The American teacher is looking for more facial responsiveness than what the Japanese student is comportable with in the classroom situation. In Indonesian culture, most of teacher does not know what the Indonesian student understands or not. If the teacher knows most of the student understands what the teacher said, the teacher will continue the lessons. In my opinion, the teacher should make all students understand what the teacher said, because it is the teacher’s responsibility.
It is difficult to generalize about Americans and facial expressiveness because of individual and ethnic differences in the United States. The United States is the big country that is has many people from another country and has difference culture certainly. People from certain ethnic differences in the United States tend to be more facially expressive than others. The key is to try not judge people whose ways of showing – emotion are different. If we judge according to our own culture norms, we may make the mistake of reading the person incorrectly. So if we want to go to another country, we should learn or know custom or facial expressiveness of people in that country besides another their cultures.
Eye contact is one of non verbal communication. Eye contact is important way to communicate with some people. Eye contact show intimacy, attention, and influence. This is considered a basic component of social interaction in some cultures. In parts of United States, such as on the West Coast and in the South, it is enough common to glance at strangers when passing them. For example, it is usual for two strangers walking toward each other to make eye contact, smile, and perhaps even say “Hi” before immediately looking away. That is a simple way to acknowledging another person’s presence. If you feel eye contact uncomfortable when you talking to stranger, you can see her or his nose or eyebrow to avoid nervous feeling.
Patterns of eye contact are different in every culture. Some Americans feel uncomfortable with the “gaze” that is sometimes associated with Arab or Indian communication patterns. For Americans, this style of eye contact is too intense. They view intense eye contact negatively, because it may convey a lack of interest, inattention, or even mistrust. In the American culture, when they lack of eye contact and mistrust they will state directly in the expression, “Never trust a person who doesn’t look you in the eyes.” In contrast, for Asian people, they consider that lack of eye contact is an authority to express respect and deference to other.
If you cannot make eye contact with strangers, they will suggest that you are shy or indicate rudeness or boredom. But if you make eye contact for a long time, some people will feel that you are outgoing or over confidence. Here are some steps to make a good eye contact:
- Concentrate on one eye
- Avoid staring
- Show Eye Magnetism
Without realizing, we keep a comfortable distance in interacting with others, the distance in the conversation has several names, namely: "including", "personal space", "interpersonal distance", "comfort zone", "body bubble". It all shows how long the conversation was whether or not comfortable in interacting with others.
Far or close distance in a conversation depends on the relationship, example: the distance when we are chatting with family and strangers of course different, because when we are chatting with the family we will close the distance and very different when we are chatting with strangers, of course, our distance going far.
For Americans, the usual distance in social conversation ranges from about an arm’s length to four feet. Less space in the American culture may be associated with either greater intimacy or aggressive behavior. The common practice of saying, “Excuse me” for the slightest accidental teaching of another person reveals how uncomfortable Americans are if people get too close. Thus, a person whose “space” has been intruded upon by another may feel threatened and react defensively. In cultures where close physical contact is acceptable and even desirable Americans may be perceived as cold and distant.
Culture does not always determine the message of nonverbal communication. The individual’s personality. The context ,and the relationship also influence its meaning. However . Like verbal language, nonverbal language is linked to a person’s cultural background . People are generally comfortable with others who have” body language” similar to their own. One research study demonstrated that when British graduate students imitated some Arab pattern of nonverbal behavior (making increased eye contact, smiling and directly facing their Arab partners). The Arabs felt that these student were more likeable and trustworthy than most of the other British student.
When one person’s nonverbal language matches that of another there is increased comfort. In non verbal communication across cultures there are similarities and differences. Whether we choose to emphasize the former or the latter. The “silent language” is much louder than it first appears.
Levine, Deena R and Mara B. Adelman. 1993. Beyond Language: Cross-Cultural Communication. New Jersey: prentice Hall Regents.
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