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Nonverbal Intercultural Communication
Characteristics of Nonverbal Codes
Whereas verbal codes are language-based,
nonverbal codes are not.
Nonverbal communication is a
multichanneled process that is usually
performed spontaneously; it typically involves
a subtle set of nonlinguistic behaviors that
are often enacted subconsciously.
Although nonverbal and verbal codes are
discussed separately, they are inseparably
linked together.
Characteristics of Nonverbal Codes
Nonverbal messages function as a “silent
language” and impart meanings in subtle
Most nonverbal messages are continuous and
natural, and they tend to blur together.
Unlike verbal communication systems, there
are no dictionaries or formal sets of rules to
provide a systemic list of the meanings of a
culture’s nonverbal code systems.
Nonverbal messages are less precise than
verbal codes.
Relationship of nonverbal communication
to verbal communication
Nonverbal messages are often used to accent the
verbal message.
Nonverbal messages can complement verbal
Nonverbal messages can contradict the verbal
Nonverbal messages help regulate the interaction
controlling the back-and forth sequencing of
Nonverbal messages can serve as a substitute for a
verbal channel when communicators simply use a
nonverbal movement to communicate something
instead of using language.
Cultural Universals in Nonverbal
Across cultures, the same body parts are used for
nonverbal expressions.
Nonverbal channels are used to convey similar
information, emotions, values, norms, and selfdisclosing messages.
Nonverbal messages accompany verbal communication
and are used in art and ritual.
The motives for using the nonverbal channel, such as
when speech is impossible, are similar across cultures.
Nonverbal messages are used to coordinate and control
a range of contexts and relationships that are similar
across cultures.
Cultural Variations in Nonverbal
Nonverbal communication must be interpreted in the
context or framework of the culture in which it occurs.
◦ Cultures differ in the specific repertoire of behaviors that
are enacted.
◦ Cultures have unique sets of display rules that govern when
and under what circumstances particular nonverbal
expressions are required, preferred, permitted, or
prohibited. (distance while talking, whom to touch & where, eye contact,
loudness & quietness, smiling & frowning, etc.)
◦ Cultures vary in the interpretations or meanings that are
attributed to particular nonverbal behaviors.
Nonverbal repertoires, their corresponding display
rules, and their preferred interpretations are not taught
verbally, but they are learned through direct observation
and personal experience in a culture.
Nonverbal Functions In Intercultural
Nonverbal codes can be used to fulfill five
interrelated functions.
◦ They provide information.
◦ They manage impressions of oneself and
◦ They express emotions.
◦ They regulate interactions such as
sequencing during conversations.
◦ They convey relationship messages.
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
Physical appearance
Body movement (kinesics)
Space (proxemics)
Touch (haptics)
Voice (vocalics)
Time (chronemics)
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
Physical appearance
◦ Body characteristics are relatively permanent stable
features that are regarded as an inherent part of
that person.
◦ Other aspects of one’s physical appearance involve
body modifications such as piercings, tattoos, and
cosmetic procedures that are also relatively
◦ Finally, some aspects of one’s physical appearance
can and usually do change from one situation to
another, but they usually don’t change within a
specific interaction.
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
◦ The environment encompasses the physical
features or characteristics of our surroundings.
◦ Formality refers to the heightened sense of
decorum and politeness that some environments
seem to require.
◦ Warmth refers not to the physical temperature of
the setting but to the emotional tone conveyed by
the environment.
◦ Privacy refers to the degree to which the
environment allows you to be surrounded by others
or isolated from those who might learn what you
are saying and doing.
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
◦ The dimension of familiarity describes the degree
to which the environment is well known and
therefore predictable to you, or strange and
unpredictable to you.
◦ Constraint refers to your perception of the extent to
which you feel “stuck” in a particular environment
or free to leave it.
◦ Distance refers to the spatial arrangements of the
environment (how far away is the door? Ppl/room size ratio?)
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
Body movements (kinesics)
◦ Emblems are nonverbal behaviors that have a direct
verbal counterpart
◦ Illustrators are nonverbal behaviors that are directly
tied to the verbal message.
◦ Affect displays are facial and body movements that
show feelings and emotions.
◦ Regulators are nonverbal behaviors that help
control the flow and sequencing of communication.
◦ Adaptors are personal body movements that occur
as a reaction to an individual’s physical or
psychological state.
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
Space (proxemics)
◦ Cultural differences in the use of personal space
 One needs to develop an awareness of cultural
differences in the use of space.
 Cultures differ in their use of intimate, personal,
social, and public space.
◦ Cultural differences in territoriality exist and can
seriously affect communication.
 The need to protect and defend a particular spatial
area is known as territoriality, a set of behaviors that
people display to show that they “own” or have the
right to control the use of a particular geographical
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
◦ It is one of the most fundamental parts of the
human experience.
◦ Touch can express positive and/or negative
feelings, indicate playfulness, establish control and
social dominance, and be used to accomplish tasks.
◦ Cultural differences in touch can lead to
difficulties in intercultural communication.
◦ Cultures can differ in the amount of touching,
where people can be touched, who can touch
whom, and in the settings or occasions touch is
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
Voice (vocalics)
◦ The many qualities of the voice, in addition to
the actual meaning of the words, form the
vocalic nonverbal communication system.
◦ Vocalic qualities include pitch, rate of talking,
conversational rhythm, and volume.
◦ Vocalics convey meanings beyond the words
that are spoken.
Nonverbal Messages in Intercultural
Time (chronemics)
◦ Time orientation refers to the value or importance
placed on the passage of time by members of a
◦ Past-oriented, Present-oriented, Future-oriented
◦ Time systems are the implicit cultural rules that are
used to arrange sets of experiences in some
meaningful way.
◦ Perhaps the most important aspect of a culture’s
informal time system is the degree to which it is
monochronic or polychronic.
Monochronic time system: things should be
done one at a time. Time is segmented into
precise, small units. Time is a commodity; it
is scheduled, managed, and arranged.
Polychronic time system: several things are
done at the same time. Relationships are
more important than schedules.
Appointments quickly broken, deadlines
unmet if friends need attention, schedule
multiple appointments simultaneously.
Nonverbal Communication and
Intercultural Competence
The rules and norms that govern most nonverbal
communication behaviors are both culture-specific and
learned unconsciously.
Monitoring one’s emotional reactions to differences in
nonverbal behaviors alerts a person to the interpretations
he or she is making and therefore to the possibility of
alternative meanings.
A person should observe general tendencies in the
nonverbal behavior of culturally different people.
Looking for exceptions to general tendencies observed
allows one to recognize that no one individual will fit
exactly the cultural generalization formed.
One can practice the ability to observe, evaluate, and
behave in effective ways during intercultural encounters.
What are some examples of cultural universals?
Can you think of examples from your personal
experiences that either confirm or contradict the
idea of cultural universals?
It is widely believed by many that “a smile is
universally understood.” Do you agree with this
We know that cultures use and value time
differently. What kinds of judgments might be
made of those who use time differently from the
ways that your culture does?