Nonverbal Communication Cues in Culture

Physical contact, personal bubble, power distance.

All of these aspects are nonverbal behavior specific to culture.

And they tend to make cross-cultural communication all the more complicated. They may even go so far as to produce misunderstandings.

Power Distance

One example of nonverbal communication that differs from your own culture is another’s power structure.

Culture views authority differently, and you must be able to adapt, as a sense of social ranking and authority enters into communication across cultures.

For example, a culture’s valuation of authority can impact the speed at which a message is delivered and answered, as well as who is the ultimate recipient.

In Sweden, there is a more decentralized authoritarian structure that aims for a participative management model.

But if you are, say, French, with a stricter authoritarian model, coming into this flatter structure would be difficult to navigate.

Your status quo is broken down. Your ethnocentric beliefs are thrown.

In order to thrive, you must be able to move past your own power structure and adapt to another’s.

Let’s look at some other nonverbal behaviors to consider.

Nonverbal Behaviors

What is an acceptable dress code in the workplace?

Is it considered rude to maintain eye contact?

What sort of personal space do you give others?

How about touching? What’s appropriate and what is not?

Each of these things is a nonverbal behavior standard to each culture. In other words, they are the norm.

Due to ethnocentrism, you’re likely comfortable in your own culture’s nonverbal communication norms and, unless the other culture’s norms are a carbon copy of your own, uncomfortable in theirs.

You may even consider another culture’s nonverbal communication cues as distasteful or wrong. And you probably can’t help but instinctively feel that way.

But you can adapt, and here’s how.

Physical Touch

Consider this: you grew up in a family that doesn’t hug often. They were loving and supportive, but they simply didn’t show it through physical touch.

You make a group of friends. They often hug you, but it makes you feel uncomfortable. You allow the gesture, but you’re stiff and formal about it. It was never part of your primary socialization, so you are reluctant to broach another’s personal space in this way and to have yours broached.

Over time, however, this familiarity becomes more and more natural with this friend group. You may start to like the feeling of connection and grow comfortable and accepting of this nonverbal behavior. You may even like it so much that you initiate, despite it not being the norm of your personal identity.

Similarly, when it comes to the norms of other cultures, you may feel that discomfort and reluctance at first to embrace certain aspects of nonverbal communication cues.

Over time, however, who knows? They may become part of you.

How to Deal with Body Contact & Personal Space in Foreign Cultures

Do you bow, shake hands, or hug when you greet someone? Do you kiss on both cheeks?

How much space do you need to feel comfortable on the metro?

What is appropriate touching in your culture?

We’ve been talking about visual frameworks and the way different cultures perceive the world. Aside from vision, all four of our other senses have cultural sensitivities as well.

And touching is one of them.

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette

When you live and work in a foreign culture, you might find your colleagues are comfortable with a different level of body contact and personal space.

One example: I was relocated to Madrid, Spain when I was a young manager. In Spain, you often find yourself negotiating over long lunches that wind down toward late afternoon.

I’d always know when the “real deal” was going down, because if my arm was resting on the table, my negotiating partner would place his hand on my arm. That gesture typically meant we were getting down to business.

To one who is accustomed to such a level of body contact, this action would be perceived as ordinary.

But for those from a culture with a different perception of touch, the body contact would probably be exceedingly uncomfortable and might even be viewed as inappropriate. Especially in a business meeting.

To Hug or Not to Hug

At around the same time I was being made uncomfortable in my meeting, my wife was taking a Spanish course alongside the wife of a Japanese diplomat.

Japanese culture views body contact of any kind with strangers or colleagues as intimate – even forbidden.

So, imagine her discomfort with the Spanish greeting of a kiss on both cheeks.

Not only do the Spanish kiss; they greet with effusive familiarity. And this woman had not only grown with the primary socialization of her culture, but was also raised in an aristocratic family, who reinforced those strict values and norms.

She explained to my wife how difficult it was to adapt. And it’s easy to understand why.

Do You Adapt?

Imagine you traveled to Zuma (a made-up country), where people – men and women – greeted you by rubbing their chest on you.

Remember, breasts are not viewed as a sexual part of the body in many cultures.

Knowing that, would you be comfortable with this greeting? And the real question: would you adapt to it?

The alternative is to stubbornly abide by your own cultural norms, awkwardly refusing to greet in this manner the rest of your days in this foreign country. But in doing so, you are saying to the locals: “I am the Monkey! I refuse to embrace your ways.”

And in making this choice, your new culture will not fully embrace you in return.