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Humans communicate verbally through words and nonverbally via facial expressions and body movements. Nonverbal communication refers to any human behavior, other than words, that serves a communicative purpose. Such behavior can occur voluntarily or involuntarily, either simultaneously with words or alone. Nonverbal communicative behaviors that have been under intensive research include high–low context, silence, turn-taking, facial expressions of emotion, head nod, and gaze and mutual gaze.

Culture is defined as “the way of life of a people” (Hall 1959, 31), who often live in a well-defined geographic area, speak the same language, and use the same nonverbal codes, with a set of norms and values regulating their thoughts and behaviors. The relationship between culture and communication, verbal or nonverbal, is a reciprocal one, as crystallized by Hall (1959, 169): “culture is communication” and “communication is culture.” People communicate according to the dictates of their culture, and, in turn, through communication, culture is manifested, specified, and developed.

Research Background

In the long journey of human evolutionary processes, cultural groups have formed distinctively different languages and nonverbal communication cues, which are understood among themselves but can be enigmatic for outsiders. As nonverbal communication is often implicit, fleeting, and hidden, it creates a major difficulty for intercultural communication.

Nonverbal cues serve several purposes in interpersonal interactions. They can convey attitudes (e.g., likes and dislikes), express emotions (e.g., being pleased or displeased), provide information about personality (e.g., being outgoing or reserved), provide a context for exerting influence (e.g., using silence to show disagreement), and complement, repeat, contradict, or substitute verbal messages (e.g., using a smile instead of words to show happiness). For example, when nonverbal cues illustrate what is being said, they are called illustrators; when they regulate the flow of the conversation, they are termed regulators; when they have a direct verbal translation (e.g., “V” for victory), they are termed emblems.

Nonverbal Communication EssayThe main conceptual framework under which nonverbal communication has been studied is cultural relativism and universalism (CRU). CRU categorizes nonverbal communicative behaviors according to their meaning and function. For example, the North American okay sign (the thumb and the index fingers form a circle, with the other three fingers in an upright position) means money in Japan, zero in France, sex in Mexico, and homosexuality in Ethiopia. The thumbs-up gesture also means okay in North America and Europe. But in China, it means you are the best. In Japan, it means boyfriend, and in Iran, it is an obscene gesture. In these instances, the meaning of the okay sign is compared cross-culturally. Conclusions are made in terms of whether the meaning of a certain nonverbal behavior is culture-specific or culture-universal. Under this scheme, cultures are not divided into clusters. Rather, each culture is taken as it is. In the following sections, representative literature on culture and nonverbal communication is reviewed.

High–Low Context Communication, Silence, and Turn-Taking

Hall (1976) distinguished two communication styles: high-context and low-context. With high-context communication, the verbal message is indirect and restricted, and the listener is expected to infer the full meaning or intention of the speaker by analyzing the words in the specific context. Low-context communication is characterized with direct and elaborated verbal messages, leaving little room for the audience to conjecture. Research indicates that low-context communication is the predominant communication style in North American and European cultures, whereas high-context communication is frequently used in Asian and African cultures.

Although both the east and west employ silence as a communication strategy, it is viewed and used differently. For example, silence is viewed positively in Japan. Japanese of few words are trusted more than Japanese who speak a lot. A well-known Chinese proverb says that sometimes silence is more eloquent than words, and those who know when to be silent know how to communicate. In Korea, a candidate losing political debates may receive more votes because the less verbose candidate may be judged as a reticent man, capable of deep thought and practical approaches to his country’s economy. Indigenous people of northern Canada and Alaska, including Athabaskans, Northern Tutchone, Carrier, and Cree, prefer silence to talk when social relations are uncertain. This communication tactic is known as “the rule of the bush which bore two reasons”: talking too much is disrespectful, especially with a stranger, and it is strategic to leave enough time to think over how to express something that is very complex and connected to many other things. On the other hand, North Americans are uneasy with silence in conversations. To avoid awkwardness, they tend to fill it with words.

A related concept is turn-taking, which refers to who speaks, how often, and for how long. Euro-Canadians tend to take long, monologic turns, and take a high percentage of turns in topics that they initiate. Japanese, however, tend to take short turns, and distribute them evenly regardless of who has introduced the topic.

Eye Contact during Conversation

Past research indicates that eye contact serves an important communicative function, and that cultural upbringing dictates the way we gaze and mutually gaze (for a review, see Li 2004). Researchers found that among the Chinese, conversational partners do not usually look directly at each other’s eyes. Black and white Americans differed in their listening behavior. During a conversation, whites gazed steadily at the speaker while blacks avoided looking into the eyes of the speaker. Comparing gaze behavior between native English speakers (Australians of British descent) and native Japanese speakers, researchers found that the Japanese participants gazed at their partners more frequently but for shorter durations than Australians. The Australians tended to look up at the end of utterances, yet no pattern of looking up was found among the Japanese participants. Japanese felt uneasy when being directly gazed upon. Researchers compared gaze behaviors of 22 pairs of Swedes and 22 English pairs during laboratory conversations. In both conditions there were 11 male/male and 11 female/female dyads. It was found that length of glances was higher for the Swedes than for the English. Frequency of glances was higher for the English than for the Swedes.

Li (2004) reported that in both gaze and mutual gaze behaviors, Chinese/Chinese interlocutors looked less frequently and for shorter durations than did Canadian/ Canadian interlocutors, thus documenting an evident cultural difference. This finding has practical value in today’s multicultural world. Suppose a Canadian professor finds her Chinese student not looking at her when he is spoken to. She may interpret the student as inattentive or disrespectful. Or imagine a Canadian businessman finding that his Chinese negotiator is not engaging in eye contact. He may infer that the Chinese person is insincere or uninterested. Similarly, a Canadian doctor finding that his Chinese immigrant patient looks away when spoken to may surmise that this individual is not telling him all of the symptoms. If intercultural interlocutors are aware of such findings – differences in eye contact behavior between Chinese and Canadians – they may be less likely to make erroneous judgments, which are the first step toward miscommunication. Li also found that when Chinese were paired with Canadians, they gazed slightly more frequently than when they were paired with fellow Chinese, while the Canadians maintained their frequent gaze pattern.

This finding provides obvious support for communication accommodation theory (CAT). CAT states that interlocutors have a tendency to converge or diverge their linguistic codes either for power or desire for social approval (Gallois et al. 2005). In this instance, the second-language speakers (the Chinese) had both linguistic and cultural disadvantages in comparison with their Canadian partners; the Chinese, therefore, converged to the more frequent gaze pattern of the Canadians. The Chinese may have converged their gaze pattern to that of their Canadian partners because they wanted to be agreeable. Immediately after the conversations, the Chinese and Canadians were asked about their experiences. Both parties said that they had experienced a pleasant interaction. In some cultures there seems to be a rule specifying that interlocutors should look at each other, while in other cultures the rules are not specific. This point is illustrated by an interesting anecdote (Li 2004, 6) concerning an encounter between a Chinese and two Americans: “On the second day of my arrival in the US, I went to see the Department Chairman accompanied by my American friend Judith. To show my respect for the Chairman, I sat straight, my hands on my knee. Most of the time I looked down; sometimes I looked at Judith, who was sitting on my right hand side. Then I heard Judith saying ‘Xiao Li, you are supposed to look at the speaker, not me.’ They both smiled, and I smiled too, but for a very different reason: I smiled to hide my awkwardness.”

Li (2004) goes on to explain that in Chinese culture, there are no clear rules regarding where one should look in a conversation, except for when one is speaking with a superior or a parent. In this case, one should look down to show respect. Looking into the eye of your mother while she is criticizing you would make her angry because that is tantamount to “talking back.” Looking down would be interpreted as being modest and accepting her criticism.

Researchers have also found that Asians, Indians, and Africans relate constant gaze with being superior, disrespectful, threatening, or insulting. Southern Europeans, Arabs, and Latin Americans, on the other hand, interpret lack of gaze as insincere, dishonest, or shy. Eye gaze of blacks is minimal when interacting with a superior, as a means of showing respect. Evidently, black children have learned to lower their eyes when an older person or a teacher is talking to them, or when they are being scolded. Among the Navaho Indians, direct gaze at one’s conversational partner is a taboo. Among the Wituto and Bororo Indians in South America, the speaker and listener both look at outside objects during a conversation. In Japan, people look at the neck level, not at the eye level. Intense gazing at the eye level during conversation may be interpreted as being disrespectful.

What Does a Nod Really Mean?

Greeks express yes with a nod as North Americans do, but they express no with head jerking back, eyes closing and eyebrows lifting for a while. The Bulgarian head movement for no consists of throwing the head back and then returning it to the upright position. When emphatically displayed, the return to the upright position can involve a slight bend of the head forward, thus appearing very much like the North American nod for yes. Cultural groups may share the use of nodding the head, especially while listening. However, the interpretation of a nod differs from culture to culture. The Japanese nod signifies continued attention while a North American nod signifies both continued attention and agreement. Without knowing this difference, North Americans can be very frustrated when, at the end of a long presentation, they find that their listener disagreed with them wholeheartedly in spite of constant nods.

Li (2006) found that when Chinese conversed with Anglo Canadians, the more backchannel responses (including head nods), the less information was correctly communicated between the speaker and the listener. On the other hand, when a Chinese talked with another Chinese or a Canadian with another Canadian, the more back-channel responses, the more information was correctly communicated. This finding showed that backchannel responses function differently in inter- and intracultural discourse. In the former, they impede information communication, while in the latter, they facilitate it. Li also found significant cultural differences in the frequency of back-channel responses. The Chinese/Chinese participants had the highest frequency, the Canadian/Canadian participants the lowest, and the intercultural participants (Chinese/Canadian) were in between. This pattern provides support for CAT in that a back-channel convergence occurred in the intercultural conditions.

Facial Expressions of Emotion

The earliest scientific study of facial expressions of emotion was published by Darwin (Ekman 1973). He postulated that emotions and their expressions were observed across cultural groups, as well as species. Therefore, they are innate and biological in nature. This theory was supported by later researchers, who identified six emotions across cultural groups: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust (Ekman 1973). Although humans are equally capable of the six emotions, whether, when, and how they display them are decided by their cultural upbringing. Ekman found that Japanese participants displayed the same negative facial expressions as American participants when watching a stress-inducing movie about sinus surgery. However, in the presence of an interviewer, the Japanese displayed fewer negative expressions than when they were alone. But the Americans were as expressive in the presence of the interviewer as when they were alone. It was concluded that culture is dictating certain rules about what feelings one should reveal to whom and under what circumstances. Matsumoto and Kupperbusch (2001) replicated Ekman’s (1973) study and they found that Americans also masked their emotions in the presence of others, but to a lesser extent than the Japanese.

Ekman et al. (1987) asked participants from Estonian SSR, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Scotland, Sumatra, Turkey, and the United States to watch slides and judge six emotions and their intensity. They found that cross-cultural agreement was very high. However, cross-cultural agreement in judgment accuracy was lower for high-intensity emotions than for low-intensity emotions (Matsumoto et al. 2002). This finding has important implications for intercultural business and political communication, because in these situations, emotional intensity is usually high. Inaccuracy in judging each other’s emotions can lead to misattribution, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, and the consequences can be severe.

Major findings on nonverbal communicative behaviors seem to illustrate a saying by Confucius: our common human nature brings us together whereas our different customs and habits set us apart. Because we are similar, we can communicate, to some extent, nonverbally even when we do not speak each other’s languages. But our different cultural norms may erect barriers. For members of different cultural groups to communicate effectively, it is essential that we learn each other’s nonverbal ways of expression, especially rules concerning when and how to use which nonverbal signals.


  1. Ekman, P. (1973). Cross-cultural studies of facial expression. In P. Ekman (ed.), Darwin and facial expression: A century of research in review. New York: Academic Press, pp. 169–222.
  2. Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., O’Sullivan, M., et al. (1987). Universal and cultural differences in the judgments of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 712– 717.
  3. Gallois, C., Ogay, T., & Giles, H. (2005). Communication accommodation theory: A look back and a look ahead. In W. Gudykunst (eds.), Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 121–148.
  4. Hall, E. T. (1959). The silent language. New York: Doubleday.
  5. Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday.
  6. Li, H. Z. (2004). Gaze and mutual gaze in inter- and intra-cultural conversation. International Journal of Language and Communication, 20, 3–26.
  7. Li, H. Z. (2006). Backchannel responses as misleading feedback in intercultural discourse. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 35, 99–116.
  8. Matsumoto, D., Consolacion, T., Yamada, H., et al. (2002). American–Japanese cultural differences in judgments of emotional expressions of different intensities. Cognition and Emotion, 16, 721–747.
  9. Matsumoto, D., & Kupperbusch, C. (2001). Idiocentric and allocentric differences in emotional expression and experience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 4, 113–131.

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