7 Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

Businesspeople standing in front of famous monuments from around the world.

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

-Peter F. Drucker

Types of nonverbal communication vary considerably based on culture and country of origin. For individuals working in the realm of international business, understanding how to effectively communicate with peers from across the world is a key competency for their professional wheelhouse.

What Is Nonverbal Communication?

Nonverbal communication describes the way people send and receive information to each other beyond words. According to Dr. Charles Tidwell, the concept serves a number of functions:

  • To accent the meaning of verbal messages (such as pointing while stating directions)
  • To complement or contradict verbal messages (such as indicating sarcasm using verbal tone)
  • To regulate interactions with others (such as using nonverbal cues to indicate when people should and should not speak)
  • To substitute for verbal messages (such as nodding instead of saying “yes”)

Although nonverbal communication is a universal phenomenon, meanings of nonverbal cues are not, in fact, universal. They vary tremendously across cultures and are often ambiguous. Because of this fact, it is crucial for those who work in international business settings to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the ways nonverbal cues are communicated across and within foreign cultures.

High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures

To further understand the nuances of nonverbal communication across cultures, it is important to know the differences between “high-context” and “low-context” cultures. Context refers to the information that surrounds an event and is tied up with that event’s ultimate meaning, according to Shoji Nishimura, Anne Nevgi and Seppo Tella.

“High-context” cultures rely heavily on nonverbal communication, using elements such as the closeness of their relationships, strict social hierarchies and deep cultural knowledge to convey meaning. In contrast, “low-context” cultures depend largely on words themselves.   Communication tends to be more direct, relationships tend to begin and end quickly, and hierarchies are more relaxed. It is important to note that no culture is “better” than another; communication styles simply convey differences, rather than superiority.

Much has been written about the differences between high- and low-context cultures, particularly by noted anthropologist Edward T. Hall. For business professionals, other useful differences are outlined below:

High context vs. low-context continuum.

Source: adapted from Social Talent

High Context

  • Communication tends to be indirect, harmoniously structured and understated.
  • In conversation, people are expected to speak one after another in an orderly, linear fashion.
  • Disagreements are personally threatening. It is important to solve conflict immediately or avoid it completely in order for work to continue.
  • Physical space is considered more communal. Standing very close to others is a common practice.
  • Verbal messages are indirect. Speakers often talk around a point (instead of directly to it) and use embellishments to convey meaning.
  • Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.
  • Some countries considered “high context” include Japan, Greece and various Arab nations.

Low Context

  • Communication tends to be linear, dramatic, precise and open.
  • Because words are so highly valued, they are used almost constantly.
  • Disagreements are depersonalized. Conflicts do not have to be resolved immediately for work to continue. When solutions are found, they tend to be rationally based.
  • Privacy and personal space are highly valued. Physical space is considered privately owned.
  • Verbal messages are explicit and direct. Words are valued above their context.
  • Speed is valued. How efficiently something is done is important.
  • Some countries considered “low context” include the United States, Germany and various Scandinavian countries.

While “high” and “low” context are examples of opposing cultures, it is also true that many cultures fall in between these two extremes. Called “multi-active,” these cultures might include those of Spain, Italy or Latin America.

Sources: The Silent Language, The Hidden Dimension, Beyond Culture, The Dance of Life 

Forms of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication can take many forms. Effectiveness as an international professional often hinges on understanding what these forms might be and how their meanings may differ between countries. Below are samples of seven forms of nonverbal communication, as well as specific cultural variances.

Eye contact

Whether or not eye contact is made, who makes it and how long it lasts vary tremendously in meaning. In many Asian cultures, avoiding eye contact is seen as a sign of respect. However, those in Latin and North America consider eye contact important for conveying equality among individuals. In Ghana, if a young child looks an adult in the eye, it is considered an act of defiance.

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A great number of cultural expressions are achieved through touch. In America, for example, using a firm handshake is considered appropriate to greet a stranger or another business professional. In France, however, it is common to kiss someone you greet on both cheeks. Touching children on the head is fine in North America. Yet in Asia, this is considered highly inappropriate, as the head is considered a sacred part of the body. In the Middle East, the left hand is customarily used to handle bodily hygiene. Therefore, using that hand to accept a gift or shake hands is considered extremely rude. There are also a wide range of cultural viewpoints on the appropriate rules regarding physical contact between both similar and opposite genders.


Gestures can convey wildly different meanings. Individuals in the United States use the “OK” sign to convey that something is acceptable. In Japan, the same hand symbol means “money.” Argentinians, Belgians, the French and the Portuguese all use the symbol to mean “zero” or “nothing.” Still other countries in eastern Europe consider that same sign an offensive swear.

Physical Space

Countries that are densely populated generally have much less need for personal space than those that are not. The Japanese, for example, are less likely to react strongly to an accidental touch by a stranger than Americans. Less personal space is also needed in areas such as Latin America, and, in the context of one-on-one conversations, the Middle East.

Facial Expressions

Winking is a facial expression particularly varied in meaning. In Latin America, for example, the gesture is often considered a romantic or sexual invitation. The Yoruba people in Nigeria wink at their children if they want them to leave the room. And the Chinese consider the gesture rude.


Posture can convey power structures, attitudes and levels of civility. Slouching in Taiwan is considered disrespectful, while other parts of the world may not think much of it one way or another. In America, standing with hands on the hips may suggest power or pride, but in Argentina, it may suggest anger or a challenge.

Many cultures also frown upon showing the bottom of the shoe, something that is considered dirty. Therefore, sitting with the foot resting on the opposite knee is strongly discouraged in places such as many Arab countries.


“Paralanguage” refers to factors of speech such as accent, pitch range, volume or articulation. In Britain, for example, people use volume to convey anger, while in India, they use it to command attention. Japanese women make a point of raising the pitch of their voices to differentiate themselves from men. In America, voice pitch between genders remains comparably the same.

The use of and attitude toward silence can also be considered a type of paralanguage. The Greeks use silence as a way to refuse things, while Egyptians use it to consent. Some cultures (such as those in Asia) are generally more comfortable with long bouts of silence than others.

When international business professionals take the time to learn what isn’t being said, everyone benefits. Not only will their efforts decrease the likelihood of misunderstandings, they will improve their abilities to negotiate, solve problems effectively, create good working relationships and become better global citizens.

Sources: Culture Plus Consulting, Vermont Department of Health

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