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.
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.
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.
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.