Paralanguage Across Cultures

Paralanguage Across Cultures

by Felicity Menzies

Paralanguage refers to the non-speech sounds that speakers can use to modify the meaning of their speech. These vary across cultures.

Power and clarity

The volume at which we speak conveys meaning that varies across cultures; for example, British English speakers use volume to convey anger, but Indian English speakers use loudness to command attention.

There are also cross-cultural differences in the normal baseline volume of speech; for example, Asians and Europeans speak at lower volumes than do North Americans.


There are significant pitch differences across cultures; for example, Japanese females adopt an extremely high pitch, separating themselves acoustically from Japanese males, whereas for English speakers, the male pitch is less differentiated from the female pitch.

Emotional vocalisations

Nonverbal emotional vocalisations, particularly those associated with positive emotions, vary across cultures; for example, screams and laughs.


Tannen cites an example of intonation failure across cultures. Indian and Pakistani employees in a cafeteria at London’s Heathrow Airport were perceived by the airport staff who ate there to be quite rude. This was because they failed to use a rising intonation with the word ‘Gravy’. Because the Asian employees’ intonation fell at the end, the British diners interpreted it as ‘Gravy—take it or leave it!’. The falling intonation was seen as abrupt and rude. In British English, the rising intonation with ‘Gravy’ implies a polite question, ‘Would you like gravy?’


Silence implies different things across cultures. Silence can be used for face-saving, conveying positive or negative emotions, communicating consent or dissent, marking approval or disapproval, or for social bonding or alienation.

Muriel Savbille Troike recounts a deadly incident that occurred in Greece because of cross-cultural differences in the use of silence. Greeks regard silence as refusal, whereas Egyptians use silence to convey consent. When Egyptian pilots requested permission to land their planes on Greek soil, and Greek traffic controllers did not respond, the Egyptians interpreted this silence as consent and proceeded to land. The Greeks interpreted this action as a direct contravention of their refusal and fired on the Egyptian planes.

Differences in the use of silence can lead to negative stereotyping. The Athabaskan Indians of North America do not engage in small talk with strangers, whereas European and African Americans use small talk to establish relationships. Athabaskan Indians stereotype European Americans as insincere and hypocritical for acting friendly before intimacy has been established. Similarly, European Americans regard the Athabaskan Indians as unfriendly, sullen, uncooperative, and ignorant. Similar negative stereotyping is reported between Finns who prefer silence and Swedes who prefer small talk.

Differences in silence are most pronounced between high- and low-context cultures.  A high-context culture is one in which meaning is inferred from the context or setting instead of the words used. The contextual cues relevant in interpreting messages include social status, social relationships, relationship history, setting and non-verbal behaviours (eye contact, facial expressions, body language, use of silence). In high-context cultures, silence is a sign of respect (allowing others to express themselves without interruption or embarrassment), contemplation, and thoughtfulness.

In high-context cultures, indirect speech is common and open verbal conflict is frowned on. Indirect speech relates to the concept of ‘face’, which is concern and consideration for another person’s social image. In high-context cultures, ‘white lies’ and hiding your true thoughts are preferable to damaging another’s face or threatening group harmony. High-context cultures typically have Collectivist values. These are cultures (e.g., China and India) in which the needs of the group prevail over individual needs. Group cohesiveness is valued over individual expressiveness. In Collectivistic cultures, direct expression of disagreement threatens face and group cohesion. Across Collectivist Asia, silence is used to signify disagreement while maintaining interpersonal harmony.

In contrast, a low-context culture is one in which meaning is inferred from actual words used. In low-context cultures, direct speech is common, and speech is clear and exact. The meaning of an utterance in a low-context culture is usually its literal interpretation and does not vary with context. In these cultures, directness, clarity, and honesty and frankness are valued.  A preference for direct speech is reflected in sayings ‘Don’t beat about the bush’ and ‘Get to the point’. In low-context cultures (e.g. the United States and northern Europe), silence is seen as a breakdown in communication.


There are cross-cultural differences in the use of non-word fillers such as ‘ahem’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘um’, ‘er’, ‘you know?’, ‘okay’ etc.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.