Body Language in Cultures

Sean E. English 102 Body language is not language in the strict sense of the word language; it is in fact, a broad term for forms of communication using body movements, gestures, facial expressions and eye behaviors in addition to sounds, verbal language, or other forms of communication. Although we may not realize it when we talk with others, we make ourselves understood not only by words but also by our body language. Body language sometimes helps make communication easy and effective.

In order to improve the quality of our communication, we should pay more attention to nonverbal communication. Culture has great influence on communication, body language is a cultural signifier that each culture has developed differently to help them communicate nonverbally within there culture. Communication is an essential part of one’s life. One must understand how to communicate with words and through body language. Some scholars treat body language as an equivalent to nonverbal communication.

Although we may not realize it when we talk with others, we make ourselves understood not only by words. Louis Forsdale, writer of “Perspectives on Communication” states that “In 1972, a research made by American linguists showed that only 35 percent communication message is sent by verbal communication, while 65 percent is sent by nonverbal communication. ”(340) It is obvious that nonverbal communication plays an important role in our communication. We can understand it well by some functions and different cultural instances of body language.

When we communicate with people from other cultures, the body language sometimes help make the communication easy and effective, such as shaking hands is such a universal gesture that people all over the world know that it is a signal for greeting. But sometimes the body language can cause certain misunderstanding since people of different cultures often have different forms of behavior for sending the same body signals. Each country has a different culture and each culture is unique in its own way. So the way people in different countries communicate is diverse too.

For example, Arab men often greet by kissing on both cheeks. In Japan men greet by bowing. In the Unite States we use what would be considered the “universal greeting” of shaking hands. Just between these three cultures they have three varying ways of greeting one another. Individuals are not born with the knowledge of how to greet another individual but adapt knowledge through the practices of their culture. Body language is indeed a powerful and useful form of communication with many forms and interpretations. How one uses body language, and how another interprets it can vary greatly from culture to culture.

The communication patterns of Asian languages serve to reinforce traditional cultural values and beliefs. Like all cultures Asian individuals develop skills that help one read another’s body language that share the same culture. Someone from an outside background wouldn’t be able to understand or read another cultures body language because they didn’t grow up practicing those same skills. Information is conveyed through nonverbal forms of communication, including silence, the timing of verbal exchanges, facial expressions, eye contact, body movements and gestures, posture and positioning, and interpersonal space.

According to Roger G. Axtell, the smile is the “ultimate gesture. ” It carries certain characteristics unlike any other single gesture and is universally understood. (134 ) However, in various cultures there are different reasons for smiling. The Japanese may smile when they are confused or angry. In other parts of Asia, people may smile when they are embarrassed. Asians may nod and appear to indicate understanding, but are non-verbally communicating that they are politely listening. Chinese and Japanese people like to avoid saying the word “no. ” Posture is also considered to be more relevant by some cultures.

The Chinese associate “correct posture” with respect for others. In addition, being low-contact cultures, Asian societies are considered non-touching. “Touching people on the shoulders and especially on the head is considered disrespectful. Handing books or other materials can be done using two hands because generally using both hands is considered more polite and respectful than using only one. ” (137) Research by Gudykunst and Kim writers of “Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication” indicate that Americans tend to use eye contact in one-on-one onversations, indicating interest and respect. However, the Asian cultures commonly consider staring to be rude or even intimidating. Instead of making eye contact while greeting someone, some common Asian gestures for greeting are handshaking and bowing. Asian women rarely look directly at men’s eyes, especially those of strangers (250). Different cultures have different concepts of personal space, including the sensations of privacy and appropriate distances, which can be a major issue in certain instances. The size of one’s personal space may be influenced by social status, gender, age, and other factors.

According to Annetta Lopaz, Director of the Center for Bilingual Education at Kean College “people from different cultures use space differently and experience it differently. ” (108) Culture can determine perception. The amount of physical space required for social distance is much less in the Asian societies. Although communication throughout the Asian culture does not rely solely on body language, a significant amount of information is conveyed through the use of it even though it has many meanings and interpretations. The United States of America is located on the Western Hemisphere whereas Asia on the Eastern Hemisphere.

The two each have their very own separate cultures. The American culture has many forms of body language that differ greatly from that of the Asian culture. One of the main forms of body language that is of great meaning in America is “the handshake”. Individuals in America often emphasize on the importance of a handshake. They claim how it can either, “make you or break you. ” Diana Booher, writer of “Make your body language say the right thing” indicates that: “Firm handshakes outweigh limp handshakes in the sense that they convey self assured personalities.

Limp handshakes show shyness or aloofness and must at all times, be avoided. A quick handshake tells people that you do not want to get involved, or that you are in a hurry. A prolonged handshake shows interest. ” (25) The American culture has put so much meaning on the handshake that it can tell a lot you a lot about a person in a very short amount of time. Ones practices of the American culture helps teach them how to read the meaning of a hand shake. The handshake is one of the crucial parts of a first impression in America.

With so much lying on first impressions in today’s age, the handshake is a form of body language that must not be ignored. Eye contact is also crucial when meeting people for the first time. Looking someone in the eye when they speak shows that you are interested in whatever they are saying, and doing the opposite is a sign of disrespect (42). To Americans eye contact can help predict one confidence. One who has little confidence might avoid eye contact and this can cause the speaker to feel the individual is not interested in what they are speaking about. Eye contact is also a factor when people are lying or speaking the truth.

When one doesn’t commit and make eye contact to their counter part the other individual might have a feeling that the person is lying. In American culture it is very easy to match ones body culture and in most cases it will not be considered a sign of disrespect. If at doubt, matching your body language with that of the person you are dealing with, seems to work wonders. C. K Gorman writer of “Secrets and science of body language at work” indicates “that when talking with someone whom we find interesting, we naturally switch our expressions and body language to match that of the other person. (22) By doing this, people sense that we are engaged in the conversation and are enjoying what we are hearing. Pease author of “The definitive book of body language”notes “before you mirror someone’s body language, you must take into consideration your relationship with that person” (260). It is generally advised to never mirror the body language of one’s boss, as it signals the employee’s boldness and desire to control (262). Just as your boss, you should avoid matching anyone’s body type who is in control of the situation at hand.

You would want to avoid mirroring one of your teachers or a police officer because they might get the wrong idea and feel threatened that you as well feel like you have a sort of power in the situation. Proper communication does not only rely on what is said. Body language, a language without words, is just as important to achieve great first impressions as words are. Especially in a culture such as America where body language plays a huge part on first impressions and first impressions play a huge part in America.

One must pay great attention to the not just the word but the actions one is making. Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, believes that: “The United States, like most other western countries, is a relatively low-context culture. In low-context cultures, the meaning of the message is usually clearly encoded in the words themselves. Asian cultures are considered high-context cultures, where the meaning of the message should not be only derived from the words themselves, but particularly from the context of the situation, and non-verbal clues. (44) In “Beyond Culture,” Hall says “Asian students with high-context cultures expect more of others than do the participants in low-context systems. ” (48) When talking about something they have on their minds, a high-context individual will expect the person to which they are talking with to know what is bothering them, so he or she does not have to be specific. The shows that individuals will talk around the point and show context clues rather then being direct with the person they are speaking with.

When you are located half way around the world, your cultures will vary greatly. With your cultures varying so will your forms of body language. Each culture adapted there own form of body language that work best for them. Every culture has its own body language, and children absorb its nuances along with spoken language. Because of special culture influences in some countries, some body languages should attract one’s attention. Being aware of other cultures can only benefit an individual and help them understand and respect other cultures.

Body language is an essential aspect of one’s life and should be cherished because of its uniqueness to an individual’s culture. Works Cited Axtell, Roger E. “Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. New York: Wiley, 1991. Booher, Dianna. “Communicate With Confidence And Make Your Body Language Say The Right Thing. ” Women In Business 51. 6 (1999): 36. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. Forsdale, Louis. Perspectives on Communication. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1981. Goman, Carol Kinsey. “Cross-Cultured Business Practices. “

Communication World 19. 2 (2002): 22. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. Gudykunst, William B. and Young Yun Kim. “Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication. ” New York: Wiley, 1997. Hall, Edward T. “Beyond Culture. ” The Reference Librarian 4 (1997): 42-50. Lopaz, Annetta. “Did I See You Do What I Think You Did? The Pitfalls of Nonverbal Communication Across Cultures” Journal of Academic Library Studies 20 (1994): 100-15. Pease, Allan, and Barbara Pease. The Definitive Book of Body Language. London: Orion, 2005. Print.