Non-verbal Communication within the Culture


Apart from verbal-language communication, there is another important communication that occurs which is identified as non-verbal language. It's so powerful that the message sent can sometimes outweigh the verbal language, similar to the Chinese saying "此时无声胜有声(silence is louder than words now )”.

On one hand, non-verbal language can help smooth out and effect the communication; on the other hand, it can be more of a hindrance than a help, due to different cultures' details in intercultural communication. Therefore, it's important to be aware of these details and cultural rules of non-verbal language to help our interpretation of a message, and also to modify our behaviour to fit the cultural situation we're in.

According to some anthropologists, non-verbal language consists of artifacts (objects 物体), haptics (touching 触觉), chronemics (time 时间), kinesics (body language 体态) and proxemics (spatial distance 空间关系,近体学).

This unit covers these identified areas with an emphasis on body language and spatial distance in different cultures. Body language is further detailed by including gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact.

Main Ideas

1. Artifacts / Objects

Artifacts are objects often used to communicate information about oneself. Artifacts include clothes, jewelry, trinkets (小饰件), accessories (小配件 )like handbags, umbrellas, fans, hats, and colors, to express one’s interests, hobbies, status, or lifestyle. With artifacts, one can be distinguished from others demonstrating his or her own taste of life and philosophy. However, different cultures have different interpretations of these artifacts.

One of the most influential artifacts a person possesses is one’s wardrobe. Research in psychology and communication supports that - at least in the observer’s eyes - clothes do make the man or woman!.

What colour clothes do you prefer to wear? The colours you choose can often tell something about your personality.

Red indicates an assertive, passionate and enthusiastic nature

Orange means you are warm-hearted, quick-witted and active

Yellow indicates cheerfulness, optimism and originality

Green shows you are responsible, hopeful and into green issues

Blue displays a cool, calm and peaceful nature

Violet means you are sensitive, tasteful and artistic

White is innocence, enlightenment, and efficiency

Black means you are mysterious, unconventional and dominant

Brown indicates a trustworthy, reliable and home-loving nature

Grey shows a desire to be anonymous

2. Haptics / Touching

Touching is experienced in many ways, such as handshakes, pats, and kisses. These touches are used to express various feelings and emotions, either ritual or affectionate. But touching has culturally specific meanings.

Different cultures emphasize various ways of touching. According some anthropologists, cultures can be categorized as high contact or low contact, depending on which senses a particular culture stresses.

For example, American culture is classified as low contact because there's less touching than in Arabian cultures which are recognised as high contact cultures.

And Chinese people use more touching between family members and close friends with whom they have an intimate or very personal relationship, than people in Northern European cultures.

In other words, there are different cultural rules of touching in the world.

3. Chronemics / Time

Each of us has the same number of hours in every day, but that time can be used differently. Time can be saved, wasted, kept, bought, sold or even killed. Time perceptions include punctuality and ways of social interactions. Usually people's lifestyles, such as daily routines, making appointments, body movements, even speech speed and taking a turn in the conversation are affected by different time perception.

Time perception differs in various cultures, which can create misunderstandings if a person is unaware of the cultural differences.

For example, in America time flies. People are pressured and constrained by time because they are trying to control it. They are always living a hectic life. In the business world, Americans are expected to arrive to meetings on time, and usually, even early. On the other hand, they arrive late to parties and dances.

While in some countries, such as China and Spain, time walks. People don't feel as pressured. They would rather take it easy than live a busy life. But in China, to not arrive on time for a business meeting would cause the host to "lose face".

4. Kinesics / Body language

Kinesics, or body language, is one of the most powerful ways that humans can communicate non-verbally. It's used to portray moods and emotions, and can emphasize or contradict what is being said.

Body language contains gestures, postures, facial expressions, and eye contact.


1) Offering or accepting a gift

-- In China, both hands are used to show respect.
-- In Britain or America, one hand is used, and can be either hand; unless the gift is too large or heavy, then both hands are.
-- In Muslim countries, only use the right hand, or both hands, never the left hand which is considered unclean.

2) Patting a child’s head, but not a teenager or adult’s head

-- In China, shows affection, otherwise might cause offense
-- In Britain or America, means giving comfort, consolation or encouragement between close friends.
-- In India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, it would be shocking and offensive, as the head is believed to be the seat of the soul.

3) The ring gesture. (The tip of the thumb and the tip of a finger meeting to create a ring.)

-- In America - "OK"
-- In Japan -"money"
-- In France -"zero or worthless"
-- In Tunisia - " I’ll kill you! "

4) The single finger beckon

-- In Yugoslavia and Malaysia beckoning animals
-- In Indonesia and Australia for prostitutes
-- In South America -- an attractive woman

5) The eyelid-pull

-- In France and Greece -- “You can’t fool me!”
-- In Spain and Italy -- “You should be alert”
-- In South America -- an attractive woman

6) The thumbs-up sign

-- In Britain and America -- "OK", and for hitch-hiking
-- In Greece -- an insult

7) The ear-tug

-- In Spain -- a sponger
-- In Greece -- a warning
-- In Italy -- homosexual

8) Ear rub

I can’t believe my ears—someone making this sign suspects the speaker of telling a lie.

The following gestures with the hand are different ways a person will initiate or respond in a handshake, and the meaning behind that gesture in the West.

9) Fingertip Flitter

If a person just makes a grab for your fingers, they are insecure and wish to keep you at a distance.

10) On Top

The person who grasps your hand with their palm down, and yours beneath their palm, feels confident, superior and is trying to dominate you.

11) Two-hand

People who grasp your hand with both of theirs want you to think they're honest and trustworthy. This is also a type of handshake used by people who have a warm and friendly attitude towards the person they are shaking hands with.


Partial Barrier

People sometimes modify the basic "arms barrier" by crossing just one arm,indicating that they are uncomfortable with strangers, or they lack confidence.

Disguised Barrier

People who continually fiddle with their sleeves, watches or bracelets use a very sophisticated version of the arm barrier. People who don't want you to realize they are nervous will often do this.

Facial expressions:

According to some psychologists there are six basic emotions: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, and sadness. Shock, horror, revulsion, fury, ecstasy and grief are their corresponding strongly-felt variants .

There are some differences between groups in terms of emotional expressions within societies. For instance in most cultures, men are expected to control their emotions while women are expected to express their emotions more freely. As a child, a boy is often told to be courageous and to control his emotions, especially sadness. A crying girl is more tolerated than a crying boy.

In addition, different societies have different expressions for their emotions. For example, the Japanese tend to conceal their feelings, especially negative ones such as anger or sadness, much more than most Americans.

Eye contact:

The important rules concerning eye contact focus on when to look and how long to look at another person, in addition to who is and who is not to look at the other person. The appropriate rules vary from one culture to another.

Usually, when sitting opposite a stranger there are two responses that can occur, depending on the person's culture and the situation. Either there is no eye contact made, or behaving in a friendly manner by naturally glancing at the other person and remaining silent, or even exchanging small talk.

When speaking in public, frequently looking at your audience is the normal practice.

In China, to look at somebody while listening to him or her is a sign of showing respect.

Eye contact rules among the British

People try to avoid staring, but at the same time avoid ignoring the person when passing a stranger in the street. (The usual habit is to glance in the direction of the person until they are about 8 feet away, then you adjust where you're walking if necessary and also change your glance.) ---the closer the proximity (nearness) the greater the tendency to avoid eye contact with a stranger.

Communicating with one another requires proper eye contact, though it doesn't have to be constant. Not looking at the other person could imply fear, contempt, uneasiness, guilt or indifference.

In addressing an audience, a British lecturer should look at his audience now and then.

5. Proxemics / Spatial Distance

One of the terms used in non-verbal language is proxemics. It studies how closely one person stands to another. Edward T. Hall coined this term in the 1950’s and 1960’s for interrelated observations and theories of man's use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.

Four Main categories of distance:

a) intimate distance ranging from direct contact to about 45cm., which applies to the closest relationships such as husband and wife

b) personal distance, 45 to 80cm.,usually maintained for conversations between friends and relatives;

c)social distance 1.30 to 2 metres, which covers people working together or meeting at social gatherings

d)public distance, beyond social distance, such as that kept between a lecturer and his audience.

Cross-cultural differences in personal space:

Americans trying to keep the normal distance between themselves and their partners might seem “stand-offish”; while the Arabs tending to keep a much closer distance might seem a bit “pushy”.

Words and Expressions

1. Idioms composed of gestures

Put one’s hand in one’s pocket: to be ready to spend or give money

Give somebody /get a big hand: to applaud somebody loudly

Keep one’s hand in: to do an activity occasionally in order to remain skilled at it

Ask for a woman’s hand: to propose marriage

Lay a finger on somebody: to touch with the intention of harming

Hold somebody’s hand: to comfort or help somebody in a sad or difficult situation

Keep one’s hand on the pulse: to know all the latest news or developments

Put one’s finger on something: to identify an error, or cause of a problem

Keep somebody at arm’s length: to avoid becoming too friendly or involved with that person

Within arm’s reach: something in a place where you can easily reach it

2. Words concerning eye contact

"Stare" - To deliberately look at someone or something for a long time without moving your eyes; for example, because you're angry, shocked, or very interested in that person

- Don't stare at people, it's very rude.

- As the boy was drowning in the river, she just stood and stared in disbelief.

"Gaze" - To look at someone or something for a long time, for example because they are beautiful or interesting, especially without realizing that you are doing it

- Jim and Sue lay down and gazed at the clouds passing overhead.

- Sam gazed at Julia Roberts, unable to believe he was so close to her.

"Gape" - To look at something or someone for a long time out of surprise or shock, especially with your mouth open

- He stood there gaping at her, too shocked to speak.

- Jeremy gaped, open-mouthed, trying to remember what he overheard.

"Gawk" - To gape stupidly, foolishly

- Don't' stand there gawking, give her a hand!

"Glare" - To angrily look at someone for a long time

- Ida didn't say any words, but just stood there glaring at him.

"Glance" - To give a quick short look (subjectively 主观上)

- He took/ cast a glance at his book.

- He could tell at a glance (saw immediately) that something was wrong.

"Glimpse" - To see (something) for a very short time, or only partly see it
(objectively 客观上)

- When entering the hall, he thought he caught a glimpse of Maggie at the exit, wearing black, but soon she was out of sight.

"Peep" - To have a quick and often secret look

- They peeped at the kids through a hole in the fence.

- She was peeping through the curtains at him in the garden.

"Peer" - To look carefully or with difficulty

- When no one answered the door, she peered through the window to see if anyone was there.

- Jenny peered over her father's shoulder at the computer screen and asked about the pictures. - all rights reserved