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.

Norms & Laws: Right vs. Illegal 

Cutting in a queue. 

Breastfeeding in public. 

These are folkways and mores – both social norms that aren’t accompanied by powerful consequences.  

If you did either of these things in a culture that doesn’t accept it, someone might give you is a dirty look or, at worst, you might be ostracized. But, it’s unlikely that you’ll suffer punishment for violating either of these norm types. 

Laws, on the other hand, are the very definition of social norms that cannot be crossed without punishment: they define what is right versus what is illegal. 

Legal Norms 

Laws are social norms, formally written and enforced by the state. They distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable human behavior in a society, and they also define the sentencing process and punishments for these behaviors. 

Any given culture or nation normally has a legislative branch that creates the laws. They are the social norm directors in this respect. 

Police and other law enforcement officials crack down on those who offend these laws. They are the social norm enforcers. 

Judges, juries, and the courts then lay down the law, correcting those offenders. They are the social norm punishers.

Treating infractions of legal norms with imprisonment and fines pressures members of a society to comply with and conform to the accepted norms 

Taboos -> Laws 

Many taboos become law. For instance, in Muslim countries, it is taboo for Mohammed to be depicted in illustrations, and it is also taboo for women to drive. These taboos then may cross into written law, either directly or indirectly. 

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, although there is no written law against female drivers, locally issued licenses are required for driving, and they aren’t issued to women. This makes female driving illegal in effect, which corresponds with the social taboo. 

Some American examples of taboos crossing into law have to do with the policing of dress code. Believe it or not, in 2014, a saggy pants ban was passed in Florida, and other cities followed suit. Towns in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York also banned women from wearing shorts in the 30s and 40s. 

Mores and folkways, which can be offensive to some, do not often cross this threshold into law.  

For instance, public breastfeeding. In America, the social nudity mores might cause some to cringe when a woman breastfeeds in public; however, it’s not illegal to do so (with the exception of these states) and many women do.  

norms

Along with the other three social norm types, laws are the most restrictive and the most effective in defining a culture’s conformity. Without conformity of some kind, culture would not exist.