Non-verbal communication is what occurs without the need for words while we are communicating. It is involved in any communication via body language and environmental context.
The two basic categories of nonverbal language are nonverbal messages which are produced by the body and nonverbal messages produced by the external conditions (time, space, silence and even our clothes).
Why is nonverbal communication important?
You may ask yourself why we need to communicate in a nonverbal way, when we have words to express our thoughts? Nonverbal communication is one of the key aspects of communication. It has many various functions such as repeating the verbal message e.g. by pointing in a direction while explaining also it verbally. It is possible to regulate interactions e.g. use nonverbal signs to show that the other person should speak or not speak. Furthermore, we can emphasize a verbal message by a verbal tone that indicates the actual meaning of the specific words. We can use it as a substitute for the verbal message by using gestures such as putting a finger to our lips to indicate the need for quiet or facial expressions like a nod instead of a yes.
That is why we express most of the meaning in a nonverbal way. In addition to that, many nonverbal expressions we consider to be accepted in our culture can get us into trouble in other parts of the world or when we are working in an intercultural context.
Nonverbal communication differences/ differences from culture to culture
Due to our cultural differences in nonverbal communication, we can offend others without realizing. It is the different cultural background and our learned behavior depending on the culture which defines every nonverbal communication. Every culture interprets nonverbal communication differently and we always have to consider that it is not a universal language, therefore miscommunication can occur when intercultural people communicate.
In the following, I’d like to give you a few examples of differences in nonverbal communication that may vary significantly depending upon cultural background:
Eye contact is one of the forms of nonverbal communication where the differences are most remarkable. Western cultures mostly consider eye contact to be a good gesture. It shows respect, attentiveness, confidence and honesty. Other cultures such as Asian, Middle Eastern and Hispanic do not take it as a good expression because eye contact is taken as a rude and especially offensive act and therefore you should avoid it at all costs. In Eastern cultures women should especially not have eye contact with men as it shows power or sexual interest.
In many cultures in the Middle East, the head movement for “Yes" is just the opposite of the head movement for “Yes" in almost any other culture. You can imagine how confusing it can be. In such cases expressing “Yes" or “No" in a verbal communicative way would be much easier.
Hand and Arm Gestures
Hand and arm gestures as a form of nonverbal communication also vary widely among cultures.
While in some cases a particular gesture means nothing to a representative of another culture, in other cases gestures such as thumbs up can be interpreted differently. It is taken as an “Okay” sign in many cultures which is not offensive whereas it has a vulgar meaning in others like Iran and Latin American.
Physical Space (Proxemics)
People from different cultures have a different tolerance for physical distance between each other. In Latin America and the Middle East the acceptable distance is much shorter than what most Europeans and Americans feel comfortable with. People have specific personal space which they do not want intruded. In some cultures, even close physical contact between strangers is acceptable.
Shaking hands is considered to be acceptable in many cultures, even between strangers. Similarly kissing, patting on the shoulder, hugs, embraces or touching other bodily parts aren't – many people in Asia and other parts of the world are more conservative and such actions are interpreted as an offense or even a violation of one's private space. This is why you should be careful with touching. Touches are considered rude in most cultures.
As you see, the differences in nonverbal communication between cultures are very extensive. If you're working in a multicultural context, it's important to understand these differences and reflect your body language. This means when you need to communicate with people from different cultures, it makes sense to inform yourself in advance about their nonverbal communication. This can save you a lot of embarrassment and misunderstanding. Of course, cultural stereotypes are just stereotypes, you can't say that every single individual from a different culture has the same forms of nonverbal communication. So as a conclusion, no matter where you are, you must remember that your body is always communicating, even when you're not even speaking!