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The Role of Culture in Nonverbal Communication

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  • 0:01 Nonverbal Communication
  • 1:20 Gestures & Touch
  • 3:40 Paralanguage & Silence
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Nonverbal communication is a large part of most conversations, but gestures and other nonverbal cues can mean different things in different cultures. In this lesson, we'll examine the role of culture in nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication

Lila loves to talk to her friends and family, but she's noticed that sometimes she doesn't need words to communicate. The other day, for example, when her friend Maria asked how Lila was doing, Lila just gave Maria the okay sign, making a circle with her thumb and first finger, to show that she was doing well.

Nonverbal communication is the transmission of a message from one person to others without speech. Things like Lila's okay sign are part of everyday communication for many people. Even when Lila does speak, she still communicates nonverbally. For example, when she interviewed for a job she dressed up in a suit to communicate that she was responsible and right for the job.

But Lila has also noticed that nonverbal communication can vary depending on a person's culture, or the beliefs of a certain ethnic group. For example, Lila loves the color purple; in her culture, it represents nobility and creativity. But her friend Maria is from another culture, and in her country, purple symbolizes death and mourning. Maria almost never wears purple, except when her grandmother died.

To help Lila with her nonverbal communication, let's look closer at the ways in which nonverbal communication can be affected by culture.

Gestures & Touch

Remember when Lila gave Maria the okay sign to let her know that Lila was doing all right? It's a good thing they weren't in Brazil, where the sign is considered offensive.

Gestures, or body language, can mean very different things in different cultures. Take the thumbs up sign. In America, it means approval, whereas in some Middle East countries it is like giving someone the middle finger: very offensive. Germans often use thumbs up to represent the number one, while Japanese use it for the number five, and in American Sign Language giving the thumbs up and moving it slightly from side to side represents the number ten. Confused yet?

Most people realize that the meaning of gestures can vary from culture to culture, so if Lila offended someone by giving them a thumbs up, she could probably explain and apologize, and it would be okay. Still, it's important to recognize and be aware that cultural differences can color the gestures that a person makes.

Touch, or physical contact with someone, is another thing that can vary by culture, and it is much easier to offend someone with touch than with gesture. For example, Lila loves to hug her friends and family, but her friend Khalil told her that in his culture men and women don't touch because it is considered taboo. This is common in Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures.

Likewise, in America, it is often considered normal to pat a child on the head. But in some Asian cultures the head is considered to be a sacred part of the body, and touching it is a no-no. Because touch is more intimate than gesture and because it is easier to offend or make someone uncomfortable with touch, it is usually best to avoid touching someone from another culture unless you know them very well.

Gestures and touch aren't the only things that vary by culture. Lila, who was brought up here in America, was taught to make eye contact when speaking or listening to someone. It's considered respectful and a sign that you're engaged in the conversation. But both Maria and Khalil say that eye contact can be considered rude in their cultures. In some cultures, like Khalil's, when a woman makes eye contact with a man, it is very forward. In other cultures, like Maria's, eye contact between any two people can be considered to be invasive.

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