1.6.1 - The Body Speaks
The following five channels of nonverbal communication carry as much or more information than the verbal message alone. In cross-cultural contexts, these nonverbal aspects may carry significant messages, but often those messages are not clear.
Touch (haptics) - refers to how we use touch in the process of communication, including the degree, if any, of tactile contact in conversational settings. All cultures have rules dealing with who, how, why, when, and under what circumstances people may engage in physical contact. Public or private touching (or its absence) communicates an enormous amount of information, beginning with how you greet someone (handshake, kiss(es) on the cheek, embrace, bow, etc.), continuing throughout a conversation to the leave-taking and conclusion of a meeting. You should find out something about the conventions of touching in the culture you are going to. It will save you embarrassment and awkward moments. See the bibliography at the conclusion of this section for some excellent additional readings on the do's and don'ts of touching cross-culturally.
Eye Contact (oculesics) refers to the role of eye contact in communication. US-Americans depend on direct eye contact as a sign of active listening and, often, sincerity and honesty. Without such connection they may feel that they are "out of contact" with the other person. In some Arab and South Asian cultures, the gaze may seem disconcertingly direct to US-Americans who see a prolonged stare as a sign of aggression. Conversely, many Asian or African (and for that matter, many Native American) groups tend to avoid eye contact, which is misinterpreted by US-Americans as evidence of evasion or suspicious behavior.
Gestures (kinesics) refers to the role of body movements (hands, head, face, torso, etc.) as messages in communication. Gestures may parallel speech or be employed independently as commands, commentary, or even to deliver contradictory signals. All cultures use expressive gestures, but they range from the very subtle to the grandiloquent and operatic. US-Americans fall somewhere in the middle of the range so to them Italians may seem wildly expressive, while Japanese are perceived as "hard to read" because of the economy of their body language. While there are some universally understood gestures, there are many more which are highly localized. A simple head nod from side-to-side can mean "yes" to an East-Indian, "no" to a US-American, and "I agree" to a Brazilian. Knowing something about local gestures before you go would be very useful. See the bibliography at the conclusion of this section for more sources of information. And once you get overseas, it is essential to learn the "codes" of the society in which you will be living.
Personal Space (proxemics) refers to the use of space in communication. This includes your "personal space" or "comfort zone" during conversation. All human beings are territorial to some degree and, although personal space is always context-sensitive and variable, group norms exist for all cultures. The “size” of our specific “space” is unconsciously acquired in early childhood. Interpersonal space in sitting, standing, and speaking have cultural meanings and may trigger intense emotional responses when violated. Knowing the general rule-of-thumb about traditional boundaries in your host country is important if you are not to be perceived as "a cold person" by standing too far away, or "threatening" (or even worse, romantic) by standing too close. Remember how you feel when you think someone is violating your space! Overseas you may have to alter your "personal space" and knowing this in advance will make adjustments easier. More about this later in this section.
Timing matters (regulators) relates to the pace of verbal exchanges, "turn-taking," starting and/or completing the exchange, and "pauses," "silences," and “interruptions” during conversation. All cultures have well-established patterns that they see as important to maintain a correct flow in a conversation. This can be very subtle, but when people are "out of sync," severe dislocation and miscommunication can occur. All this hinges on "timing.”" When they are excited, US-Americans are quick to interrupt another speaker, and often use a relatively direct communication style (see Section 1.6.3 for more about Communication Styles). In some cultures this style of communication will be considered brash and insensitive (much of Asia, for example) while to others it may seem restrained and even somewhat impersonal (Australia and Russia). Knowing something about how to appropriately enter, exchange information, indicate that you are listening, and take leave in a conversation abroad will help you both be understood and to understand another culture more fully.