Non-Verbal Communication Across Cultures

When our gestures speak louder than our words.

Posted Jun 29, 2017

Next time you are having a conversation with someone, notice how much of the content is communicated without words. Let’s say your boss calls you to her office, hands you your evaluation report, and says, “I am speechless.” Since the report is in a tightly sealed envelope and your boss is temporarily robbed of speech, you will look for non-verbal clues (from her face, gestures, posture, tone of voice) about your fate. Did she exclaim those words with a delighted smile, while extending her arm for a handshake? Or did she mutter them through pursed lips, with a deep frown dividing her brows? Either way, the picture painted by your boss’ non-verbal cues will likely communicate more information to you in that instant than her words.

In an intercultural context, when our interlocutors don't share our linguistic and cultural backgrounds, non-verbal communication takes on a particularly poignant role. It can make the difference between appearing authentic and being misunderstood. It can bring people together or pull them apart. It can help us speak and read volumes without understanding a word of each other’s languages. 

Psychologist David Matsumoto is an acclaimed expert on non-verbal behavior, culture and emotion. Here he is, in his own words, on the weighty consequences of non-verbal communication across cultures.

1) What role does non-verbal behavior play in cross-cultural communication? 

To understand this, we need to understand the role of non-verbal behavior in any communication. Just as we are talking right now, you are nodding and smiling, and I am getting a signal that you are following what I’m saying, perhaps even agreeing with me. That’s an example of back channel communication and it greases the wheels of any kind of communication. Clearly, words are very important because they communicate a specific content. But non-verbal behavior also communicates content, as well as much more. The function of all communication is to share intentions, and non-verbal behavior plays a role in that too. It helps us to share our emotions, agreements and disagreements, thus, helping us to communicate our intentions along with verbal language.

2) What are some common challenges of non-verbal communication across cultures?

Consider the people you know who are fluent in languages, but do not get along very well with others from different cultures. Part of the reason is that verbal language by itself only communicates a certain amount of content. A person who only develops their language skills without the non-verbal behaviors that are associated with that language doesn't come across well. People can be saying the content they want to communicate, but just not come across correctly, because a lot of what is being communicated is non-verbal. This can lead to intercultural conflict, misunderstandings and ambiguities in communication, despite language fluency. On the other hand, non-verbal behavior can also grease communication when there is a lack of language fluency. I am sure anyone who is interculturally competent can go to any country where they don't speak the language, and still be able to get along with others. Data shows that language classes that incorporate non-verbal communication and culture in their curricula fair better than traditional language classes that focus on the language only.

3) What advice would you have for becoming more effective when communicating non-verbally with people from different cultures?

I have three tips.

1. Try to be pleasant. Most people like pleasant people and a simple smile goes a long way.

2. Be interested. Show interest in other people, languages and cultural artifacts. Ask questions. Then intercultural interaction doesn't become a hassle – it becomes an adventure.

3. Try to learn something important about the language and culture of your interlocutor. For example, learn and try some simple phrases. “Good morning,” “please,” and “thank you” go a long way to greasing many interactions. A lot of people will then feel like they want to help you out, which can help you get over any kind of communication issues. And, you’ll grow as you interact.

4) Which emotion is easiest to communicate across cultures and which one is most prone to misunderstandings?

Easiest one to communicate is happiness. Being nice and pleasant is easy to communicate, it’s free, and has most impact. All other emotions are prone to misunderstanding. One could be frustrated, disgusted, sad, surprised, afraid or concerned and all of these emotions can be misinterpreted somehow. But positivity is not usually misinterpreted. Importantly, one has to also think about how one regulates their emotions and expressions in various interactions, because what may bring about an emotion in one, may not be what is actually going on in the other. It’s true for interpersonal interactions (ask any newlywed) and intercultural communication.

5) What are some advantages of being skilled at non-verbal communication?

In the context of intercultural communication, I think the main advantage is that if you are good at non-verbal communication then you can go anywhere without knowing the language and you will get along. It’s easier to have effective intercultural interactions - even without knowing the language - when you are skilled in non-verbal communication.

As a species, we have been relying on our non-verbal channels to send and receive messages for considerably longer than the evolution of our languages. Although our cultures commit us to different ways of expressing ourselves without words, we are much more similar than we might think. As Dr. Matsumoto points out, the scientific data on most all psychological processes, attributes and behaviors shows that the cultural differences among us are much smaller than our individual differences. Despite our tendency to lose sight of our similarities and, instead, to highlight our differences, “the majority of people in the world want to get along,” says Matsumoto.  As with all relationships – communication is key. That’s when our non-verbal abilities can help us to better relate to other members of our human family. Even when words fail us.

Many thanks to David Matsumoto for being generous with his time and insights. Dr. Matsumoto is a professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University and the founder and director of SFSU’s Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory. He is the author of countless books and articles on culture, psychology, emotion and non-verbal behavior.