The power of non-verbal communication across cultures

Communication is the foundation of any successful relationship, either personal or professional. However, what is more important? What we say or how we say it?

We are constantly communicating at different levels, either using words or silence. Did you know that around 80 % of all interpersonal communication is non-verbal? Indeed, there is no doubt that non-verbal communication has a huge impact on our message; it is obvious that body language is an essential part of any communicative strategy.

History offers some remarkable examples of how body language and non-verbal communication heavily influence human perception. Indeed, the first presidential debate to be broadcast on T.V. was between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, and represented a turning point in television history. People who listened to the debate on the radio believed that Nixon would win the presidential elections. However, those who watched it on T.V. were absolutely convinced of Kennedy’s victory: the contrast between Kennedy’s vitality and Nixon’s tiredness (in conjunction with his weak expressivity) was more decisive than all words that were said.

The power of non-verbal communication was however long known by the first emerged scientific communities. The first studies concerning body language began with Charles Darwin’s book The expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal in 1872. Although Darwin pointed out the value of facial expression behaviour acquired throughout evolutionary history, his publication did not create a remarkable impact. Despite research on non-verbal communication continued, it was not since the introduction of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell’s work in 1955 that this field arouse real interest among the scientific community. Birdwhistell chose Kinesics as the name for the study of the way in which certain body movements and gestures serve as a form of non-verbal communication.

The investigation of communication is widely interdisciplinary; it comprises Psychology, Psychiatry, Anthropology, Sociology and Ethology. Although, it is still a controversial science, there are some insightful discoveries that are worthwhile sharing.

Although non-verbal communication is a universal phenomenon, most of non-verbal codes are mainly defined by culture, which makes them ambiguous and difficult to understand.



For instance, Anthropologist Edward Hall observed that Arabic people stand very close to each other when having a conversation, looking deeply into each other´s eyes. By contrast, there are societies in the Far East where looking into each other’s eyes whilst having a conversation is regarded as a rude behaviour. However, we do not need to look that far away for similar examples. Did you know that English people do less head movements than Americans because the English are more focused in eye-contact, while the Americans prefer to change eye direction constantly? And what would you tell me about personal space?

Did you know that the optimal distance to have a conversation with somebody from South America might be perceived as invasive by a North American?  

Certainly, non-verbal communication is heavily affected by cultural differences.

This calls for understanding the cultural context as a first step in revealing the meaning of non-verbal messages. However, there are studies that suggest that non-verbal communication is not only linked to cultural influence but also by verbal language itself. The founder of kinesics observed that some bilingual people are not only so with spoken language but also with its gestures, which are different depending on the language they are speaking in. For the sceptical, I propose a simple exercise:

Watch different films with muted sound and try to figure out the language they are speaking in by looking at their body language. Did you guess it? If you did, you probably based your decision on what is called the kinesis of a language.


Indeed, when students are learning a foreign language (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) they are learning the kinesis of that language at the same time! Well, it is said that the future of learning and teaching languages is going to focus on this ‘kinesistical’ approach.

Nowadays technological development has dramatically changed the way in which we communicate, connecting humans in a real-time network across de world. However, the lack of clear communication has never been so evident. For instance, technology has made business communications faster and easier, but also made them distracting, confusing and less comprehensive – especially interactions across cultures. In consequence, face-to-face communication has never been so effective and necessary.

Indeed, if we want to build relationships on a deeper level –personal or professional-, being open to other cultures and learning their languages –verbal and non-verbal- is a bridge that enables us to empathise and understand more complex matters, promoting our prosocial behaviour and favouring true leadership.

By Aina Calpe Serrats

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