The Euro-zone is in a tizzy. Greece’s economy has tanked and is being bailed out by countries with different attitudes and understanding about money. Though they now share a monetary system, different countries have different ways of communicating. It’s not just about the words they speak. It’s also about the non-verbal communications.
If humans find verbal communications difficult, non-verbal forms of communication are even more difficult. Nonverbal communication involves all nonverbal stimuli in a communication setting which have the potential of conveying a message between the source/speaker/transmitter and the receiver/listener. That’s a very technical way of saying that eye contact, gestures, physical contact, dress, proximity, facial expression, posture, volume, intonation, etc are all part of non-verbal communication. Most of what we do in the area of non-verbal communication is learned behavior and we do it unconsciously.
Issues of cultural background, regional variations, gender and personal idiolect come into play in non-verbal as well as verbal communications. (In linguistics, an idiolect is a variety of a language unique to an individual.) The truth is that our actions do speak at least as loudly, if not more loudly, than our words. Non-verbal communications can affirm, complement or even contradict what is being verbally transmitted. One of the issues people run into with e-mail is that the person sending the message knows the intended message is meant to be funny or sarcastic. Without the non-verbal clues, the person receiving the message may take the message seriously.
Among the most potent forms of non-verbal communications is gestural. There are too many differences in gestures to handle them in a meaningful way here. Some examples of gestures that may not translate include pointing. Pointing with a single finger is considered rude in many Asian cultures. Better there to indicate direction by gesturing with a whole hand. Even among those cultures that use a single finger to point, there is variation. In the US , we use the index finger to point. In Germany , using the pinky to point is common. The gesture that Americans use to indicate everything is okay, is a very offensive gesture in many parts of the world.
Even very similar cultures have differences in gestural norms. When George Bush visited Australia , he flashed them a V-for victory/peace sign from his limo. The gesture is normally done with the palm facing out, but for most Americans, it does not matter. President Bush, unfortunately made the sign with the back of his hand facing towards the crowd. In Australia and in the UK , this is an equivalent of flipping someone the bird, or saying “Up yours.”
In America and in most parts of Europe , showing someone a closed fist with your thumb sticking in the air is a sign of approval. In many Asian or Islamic parts of the world, it is an insulting gesture.
While we in the USA men greeting each other with a handshake is the norm, in other parts of the world they might greet each other with a kiss. There are cultures that consider two men walking hand-in-hand to standard behavior. In the United States , two men holding hands would indicate a romantic relationship.
Eye contact can indicate degree of attention or interest. It can be used to indicate attraction, to establish power, indicate emotion, and influence attitude.
While some western cultures perceive direct eye contact as a positive trait. Children are encouraged to look the person addressing them in the eye. However, in a country as diverse as the USA, that is not a universal truth. African-Americans tend to use more eye contact when they are speaking, but less when they are listening; Anglo-Americans tend to use more eye contact when listening, but less when speaking.
Attitudes in Northern Europe such as Spain, France and Germany, tend to be similar to the Anglo-American norms for eye-contact in the US. However, eye-contact in those areas has more flirtatious facets than in the US.
In the Middle East, many cultures make prolonged eye contact when in conversation. They believe it shows interest and allows them to read the truthfulness of the person with whom they’re speaking. That said, religious laws change the rules about what is appropriate in terms of eye-contact between a man and woman.
In certain parts of Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia avoiding eye contact is the way to show respect. Extended eye-contact in these cultures may be taken as disrespectful or a challenge to authority.
Different cultures have different rules for physical contact. Norms for the type of contact, the length of contact and the persons involved in contact vary.
Upon encountering an individual, even a stranger, Americans shaking hands as the norms. In certain situations, hugging upon meeting is acceptable. Some American women will greet each other with a kiss. A peck on the cheek is acceptable between men and women. American women will shake hands in business situations, but are likely to hug in social situations outside of the workplace. In certain demographics, the “hand bump” has become the proper greeting.
Islamic cultures generally do not approve of touching between genders, though many Islamic men who do business internationally have learned to adopt more western customs in dealing with women.
Touching on the hood is considered disrespectful by African Americans. Many Asian cultures do not allow touching on the head as it houses the soul and a touch on the head can put the soul in peril.
Some cultures such Filipino, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Indian think that Americans do not bathe sufficiently. Americans have multibillion dollar industries to protect them from bodily odors. Other cultures think Americans are ridiculous and consider bodily odors more normal.
When people run late, a standard joke is to talk about things running on __________time. The blank is filled by whatever word identifies the group. Different cultures do indeed treat time differently.
Anyone who has travel led by train in Europe knows that in certain countries like Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, trains run on exact schedules. In other countries, train schedules seem to be mere suggestions. There are cultures that value punctuality more than others.
The French protect their 36 hour work week jealously. For many Europeans, 6 weeks of vacation is the norms. Americans consider two weeks the norm.
As globalization continues and people from around the world connect more easily. Though we master one another’s language, there is more to how we communicate than just the words we speak.