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Nonverbal Communication in an Intercultural Context 3


Nonverbal Communication in an Intercultural Context

Nonverbal communication within an intercultural sphere can be challenging. Nonverbal communication can be defined as a communication process through which messages are sent and received without the use of words. It is important to note that verbal and nonverbal communication often operate together, as they are interconnected. Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool of communication as it assists in creating the communicator’s image in the minds of others (Ting-Toomey & Chung 2005). It is also an essential conduit for feelings and emotions that cannot be expressed effectively through words. Nonverbal communication can be intentional or unintentional and includes aspects such as posture, eye contact, touch, facial expressions, proximity, and gestures.

Eye contact is an essential feature of nonverbal communication. It allows one to express themselves without having to utter a single word. However, the perception of eye contact differs from one culture to another. For instance, in the United States, eye contact shows that one is interested in the other person and is a sign of respect (Ting-Toomey & Chung 2005). In contrast, some cultures construe eye contact as a sign of disrespect, especially if a child maintains eye contact with an elder. Facial expressions communicate varying messages such as anger, fear, joy, sadness, and others. Facial expressions differ across cultures in terms of intensity and shape.

An individual’s posture also communicates messages to the audience. Apart from indicating mood, posture also describes a person’s general personality (West & Turner 2010). In the American culture, walking with your head down indicates shyness. However, in some cultures, it might be construed as a sign of respect. Haptic communication is a type of communication through touch, which is usually used when one comes into physical contact with others (Ting-Toomey & Chung 2005). An example of touch is handshakes, which vary among diverse cultures. Gestures are visible body actions that pass certain messages. Gestures may encompass the use of body parts such as hands, fingers, or face. Just like touch, gestures vary from society to society.

There are various dimensions of intercultural nonverbal communication. The first dimension is context, which refers to the extent of the use explicit/verbal or implicit/nonverbal communication (Ting-Toomey & Chung 2005). Cultures in North American display a low context as people have the freedom of speech and display directness. In contrast, the Chinese culture has a high context, as silence and indirectness are valued. The second aspect is individualism or collectivism. Individualistic nations such as Great Britain promote individual freedom while collectivist countries such as China promote group harmony. Collectivism is evident in nonverbal communication through body movements, coordinated facial expressions, and close proximity.

A third dimension is power distance, which is the extent to which equality is perceived in society. Cultures with low power distance such as Austria advocate for clear vocalic cues while higher power distance cultures such as Mexico advocate for respect for status (West & Turner 2010). Cultures can also be characterized in terms of gender with some being feminine and others masculine. There are other dimensions of intercultural communications such as uncertainty, time, and immediacy.

I have met many people from diverse backgrounds. In one particular instance, I encountered a Dutch who displayed limited gestures. At first, I thought that he was not interested in what I was saying. I had the feeling that he did not want to talk to me. However, when I asked him why he behaved that way, he said that in their culture, they only use gestures when they feel deeply emotional. Therefore, the lack of gestures was not an indication of disinterest in our conversation.


Ting-Toomey, S & Chung, LC 2005, Understanding intercultural communication, Oxford University Press, New York.

West, R & Turner, LH 2010, Understanding interpersonal communication: Making choices in changing times, Cengage Learning, New York.