Nonverbal communication differences between cultures occur because of how different people around the world interpret actions in social interaction. Understanding the cultural differences in nonverbal communication is important for those with a goal to work in international business.
How Is Nonverbal Communication Affected By Culture?
Types of nonverbal communication vary based on culture and country. But the areas of differences tend to fall within the following eight areas. Each provides an area where people doing business in other parts of the world should understand the nonverbal communication differences between cultures and how to prepare for them.
Eye contact signals confidence in the West, but can be seen as rude or challenging in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Also, there are gender rules around eye contact, with many Eastern cultures discouraging women from making eye contact with men as it conveys authority or sexual interest.
Touch often is used frequently in communication, even in a business setting, with customs such as the handshake. But other cultures consider touching other people inappropriate. Those who live in Asia tend to take a more conservative approach when it comes to touching, with a bow typically replacing a handshake. Another example of the differences with touching is patting someone on the head. The U.S., it’s seen as endearing and shows affection with children. But in some Asian cultures touching children or adults on the head is disrespectful. The U.S. is more conservative in other areas, such as not kissing on the cheek as they do in many parts of Europe.
Many businesspeople who work internationally discipline themselves to keep hand gestures to a minimum, as they are a bit of a minefield. For example, pointing at someone else is an insult in most parts of the world, but in some places, it is often used simply as a reference. Polynesians stick out their tongue to greet people, but that doesn’t fly in other parts of the world. The most common gesture in the world is a nod, but even that can mean different things in different cultures.
The rule of thumb here, no matter where you are in the world, is to give people more space than you think they might need. Only get close if invited. People in different cultures view physical distance differently. However, it’s best to never enter anyone’s personal space, about 2 feet. If it’s not personal intimacy, many people find such proximity uncomfortable.
The good news is that facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are universal. The bad news is that not every culture is OK with using them in a business setting. The Japanese, for example, try to remain a neutral facial expression, believing that showing your emotions burdens the other person.
Conservative attire is the safest bet. Some places in the United States are fine with very relaxed appearances, while others see even an exposed shoulder or leg as cause for offense. The best choice is to simply dress conservatively. You can also loosen up your wardrobe if it becomes apparent that is acceptable.
Again, the traditional route is the best route. Don’t slouch when sitting or sit with legs crossed. Face people as they speak to you and nod enough to show you are paying attention to what they say. Stay mindful of where you sit in meetings – in some cultures, there’s a strict hierarchy for who gets to sit where.
Paralanguage refers to communication that is vocalized but not words. This includes tone of voice, loudness, speed of speech and inflection. Paralanguage is key to understanding the context or meaning of the words used. It’s important to be mindful of these issues, and to understand they are not discernible in emails and texts, so great care must be used in the words you choose.
High-Context vs. Low-Context
Another way to help with understanding the cultural difference in nonverbal communication is understanding the difference between high context and low context cultures.
High-context cultures rely more on nonverbal communication than low-context cultures. They use personal relationships, social hierarchies and cultural knowledge to convey meaning.
In “low-context” cultures, words are more important. Communication is direct, relationships begin and end quickly, and hierarchies are relaxed.
For those who aspire to work in international business, understanding these nonverbal communication differences between cultures is key to success. An online MBA from Point Park University can provide students the skills they need to fulfill their international business goals.