You’re Cramping My Style: Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

You’re Cramping My Style: Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

by Felicity Menzies

Communication is far more than spoken words. We also use nonverbal behaviours to deliver and interpret messages. Nonverbal communication supplements verbal communication by providing extra information that goes beyond what is said. It involves gestures, greetings, body orientation, facial expressions, and other displays of emotion. We also send messages through touch, eye contact, and the use of personal space.

Most of the meaning in our communication is expressed nonverbally. About 7 percent of a message is conveyed by words and 38 percent is through paralanguage–ways of using the voice, such as tone, volume, and inflexion. Nonverbal behaviour can account for up to 55 percent of the message. What people do is clearly more important than what they say. And how something is said is much more important than the words used. This is particularly true in high-context cultures, where meaning is implied indirectly from contextual cues, rather than literally.

Cross-cultural challenges

Like verbal communication, nonverbal communication varies across cultures. This means that learning how to interpret and deliver nonverbal communication is just as valuable as learning a foreign language.

Flexibility in nonverbal communication can be difficult to achieve. While verbal behaviour is intentional and conscious, nonverbal communication often occurs unconsciously. This makes it difficult to regulate or modify. Interpretation can also be a problem because nonverbal communication is often ambiguous.

Nonverbal behaviour and prejudice

Cultural differences in nonverbal behaviour can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Researchers have identified that many characteristically Black nonverbal behaviours—including speech disturbances, higher vocal pitch, slower vocal pace, more indirect speech, less eye contact, more smiling, and greater body-language expressiveness—are perceived by White police officers to be indicators of deception.

Cross-cultural differences in nonverbal behaviour


Cross-cultural differences in gestures are well documented.

What might appear to be the same gesture can have totally different meanings in different cultural contexts. Nodding the head, for example, means ‘I agree’ in some cultures, but ‘I don’t agree’ in others.

Some gestures are unique to a particular culture.

Gestures are grouped according to seven categories:

  • Signalling arrival and departure: for example, blowing a kiss, fist to chest pounding, shaking hands, hugging.
  • Showing approval: for example, applause, nodding ‘yes’, raising the arms, giving the ‘high five’ or ‘thumbs up’.
  • Showing disapproval: for example, yawning, folding arms, choking, finger-wagging, nodding ‘no’, holding or wrinkling the nose.
  • Attracting mates: for example, eyebrow-wriggling, eyelid-fluttering, staring or gazing, winking, holding hands.
  • Offensive and profane gestures: for example, chin-flicking, nose-thumbing.
  • Gestures for emphasis: for example, chin-stroking, making a fist, drumming fingers, snapping fingers, shrugging.
  • Replacing words: for example, ‘Call me’, using finger and thumb to mimic the shape of a telephone receiver, ‘Come here’, with an upturned palm and index finger crooked towards the body.
Body language

Many gestures involve the hand, but other forms of body language are also used to convey meaning. The Japanese practice of bowing, for example, involves a rigid, hierarchical scale, based on status and rank. There is also a strict observance of the duration, angle, and frequency of the bow.

Some cultures are more expressive than others in the display of nonverbal behaviours. In America, for example, Italian migrants typically gesture much more than British or Jewish migrants do. Japanese people use fewer hand, arm, and whole-body gestures than Americans generally do.


There are also cross-cultural differences in the ways people think about and deal with time.

Monochronic cultures view time as linear. In these cultures—the United States is one example—time is scheduled and segmented according to the clock. People allocate a specific amount of time to complete a single task; for example, scheduling a meeting in which attention is focused on the the topic in question for the entire time. In monochronic cultures, time is money. Efficiency and punctuality are highly valued. Tardiness is perceived as laziness and unreliability. In monochronic cultures, there is a strict divide between work and social time.

In polychronic cultures, time is viewed as more flexible and abundant. People try to accomplish many different tasks—private and public—at the same time. A meeting might be interrupted many times by various business or social interactions. Individuals are less concerned with clock time and more concerned with intuition—acting when ‘the time is right’.

In these cultures, time is flexible, so as to meet the needs of others and to ensure social harmony. It is considered respectful to let a conversation reach its natural end, even if it means going overtime. In China, to start a wedding banquet late, even by as much as two hours, is a sign of respect to the guests who have taken the trouble to attend. On the other hand, at non-social events, such as business meetings, the Chinese place a high value on punctuality. Within any particular culture, the use of time tends to vary according to circumstances.


There are cross-cultural differences in the amount of personal space that individuals need in order to be comfortable in their interactions. People from countries whose populations are dense tend to need less personal space. Where populations are more spread, people usually out prefer more.

Violations of cultural preferences for personal space can be discomforting. If you are allowed more actual personal space than your cultural preference demands, you might regard your partner as being cold, shy, or unfriendly. If you personal small is too small, you might think that your partner is intrusive, rude, or even aggressive.


The use of touch is related to how a culture uses space. In non-contact cultures, people rarely touch others, unless they are on intimate terms. Non-contact cultures include North Americans, Germans, English, and many Asian cultures.

By contrast, contact cultures regularly use touch to display affection towards others—even in business relationships. People in contact cultures keep less personal space and engage in more eye contact. This group includes Southern Europeans, Arabs, and South Americans.

There are cross-cultural differences in reactions to accidental touch. Western cultures are more offended by the touch of strangers when compared with Asian cultures. Asian nations are densely populated and people from these cultures have been socialised to ignore accidental touching.

There are cross-cultural differences in intentional touch. In some cultures, it is not unusual for heterosexual men to hold hands with each other as a sign of friendship. In the West, this would suggest sexual intimacy. Sexually conservative cultures are less comfortable with touch between members of the opposite sex. In Anglo cultures, it is friendly and affectionate to pat a child’s head. In many parts of Asia, however, it is inappropriate to touch someone’s head as it is considered to be a sacred part of the body. In the Middle East, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene. It should not be used to touch another person or to transfer objects.

Eye contact or gaze

In Western cultures, eye contact shows attentiveness and honesty. If you do not look an American in the eye, you might be perceived as uninterested or untrustworthy. Eye contact in low Power Distance and Individualistic cultures such as the United States expresses interest in your partner as an equal. In stark contrast, Collectivist and high Power Distance cultures use a lack of eye contact to convey respect and humility.

The appropriateness of public gaze also varies across cultures. In China, it is common, and quite acceptable, to stare at a strange or beautiful person. This is considered rude in the United States.

In the United States, there are differences in gaze and visual behaviour among different ethnic groups. White Americans maintain eye contact while listening and break eye contact when speaking. Black Americans do the opposite.

Facial or emotional expressions

Researchers have identified six universal facial expressions used to convey emotion: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These facial expressions are recognised and interpreted similarly across cultures. Despite this, people around the world express their emotions differently in social situations.

Cultural display rules are principles that people use to manage or modify their emotional expressions, depending on social circumstances. There are five ways in which expressions can be modified when emotion is aroused. Individuals can

  • Amplify (exaggerate) or de-amplify (minimise) their expressions
  • Mask or hide their emotions
  • Neutralise their expressions
  • Qualify their feelings by expressing emotions in combination

There are cultural—as well as individual—differences in emotion modification.

There are also culturally specific ways in which individuals express particular emotions. Smiling is a good example. It is usually associated with pleasure, but it can also convey affection or politeness, or even disguise true feelings. In some Asian cultures, smiling is used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment. North Americans smile to convey friendliness and goodwill. They smile more than Northern Europeans, who reserve smiling for occasions when they actually feel happy.

Focal emotions are emotions that are experienced and expressed more often in a particular cultural setting. For example, Americans and Russians both express anger and contempt more than Japanese people do. Focal emotions are related to cultural values. Cultures that value honour have greater frequency of anger. In Collectivist cultures, shame is a focal emotion. The greater expression of joy in the United States is linked to the cultural value emphasis on excitement. Collectivist cultures deamplify their expression of positive emotions.

Physical appearance and attractiveness

Physical appearance and attractiveness influence first impressions and contribute to snap judgements about an individual’s personality.

Someone who does not conform to a cultural norm of appropriate and pleasant physical appearance is perceived as an outsider—or possibly as a deviant. As an outsider, an individual is at risk of being stereotyped. An outsider might be socially alienated or experience prejudice and discrimination.

Altman, I., & Vinsel, A. M. (1977). Personal space: An analysis of E. T. Hall’s proxemics framework. In I. Altman & J. F. Wohlwill (Eds.), Human Behavior and the Environment: Advances in Theory and Research (Vol. 2, pp. 181-259). New York: Plenum.
Armstrong, N., & Wagner, M. (2003). Field guide to gestures: How to identify and interpret virtually every gesture known to man. Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books.
Du, W. (2014). An Analysis of Nonverbal Pragmatic Failure in Intercultural Communication. Paper presented at the International Conference on Education, Language, Art and Intercultural Communication (ICELAIC-14), Zhengzhou, China.
Earley, C. P., & Ang, S. (2003). Cultural intelligence: Individual interactions across cultures. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Earley, C. P., Ang, S., & Tan, J.-S. (2006). CQ: Developing cultural intelligence at work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Ekman, P. (1972). Universal and cultural differences in facial expression of emotion. In J. K. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 207-281). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Ekman, P. (1984). Expression and the nature of emotion. In P. Ekman & K. R. Scherer (Eds.), Approaches to emotion (pp. 319-344). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ekman, P. (1993). Facial expression and emotion. American psychologist, 48(4), 384-392.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding. Semiotica, 1, 49-98.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 17(2), 124-129.
Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Pan-cultural elements in facial displays of emotion. science, 164(3875), 86-88.
Elfenbein, H. A., & Ambady, N. (2002). On the universality and cultural specificity of emotion recognition: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(2), 203-235. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.128.2.203
Efron, D. (1941). Gesture and environment. Oxford, UK: King’s Crown.
Exline, R. V., Jones, P., & Maciorowski, K. (1977). Race, affiliative-conflict theory and mutual visual attention during conversation. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention, San Francisco.
Friesen, W. V. (1973). Cultural differences in facial expressions in a social situation: An experimental test on the concept of display rules. Unpublished doctorial dissertation University of California. San Francisco, CA.
Graham, J. A., & Argyle, M. (1975). A cross‐cultural study of the communication of extra‐verbal meaning by gestures. International Journal of Psychology, 10(1), 57-67.
Hall, E. T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubeday.
Hall, E. T. (1993). An Anthropology of Everyday Life. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.
Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1987). Hidden differences: Doing business with the Japanese. New York: Doubleday.
Herring, R. D. (1990). Nonverbal Communication: A Necessary Component of Cross‐Cultural Counseling. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 18(4), 172-179.
Izard, C. E. (1994). Innate and universal facial expressions: Evidence from developmental and cross-cultural research. Psychological Bulletin, 115(2), 288-299.
Jones, S. E. (1971). A comparative proxemics analysis of dyadic interaction in selected subcultures of New York City. The Journal of Social Psychology, 84(1), 35-44.
LaFrance, M., & Mayo, C. (1976). Racial differences in gaze behavior during conversations: Two systematic observational studies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 33(5), 547-552.
Li, J., Wang, L., & Fischer, K. (2004). The organisation of Chinese shame concepts? Cognition and emotion, 18(6), 767-797.
Matsumoto, D. (2006). Culture and nonverbal behavior. In V. Manusov & M. Patterson (Eds.), Handbook of nonverbal communication (pp. 219-235). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., Hirayama, S., & Petrova, G. (2005). Development and validation of a measure of display rule knowledge: the display rule assessment inventory. Emotion, 5(1), 23-40.
Mehrabian, A. (1977). Nonverbal Communication. Chicago, IL: Aldine.
Mesquita, B. (2003). Emotions as Dynamic Cultural Phenomena. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of Affective Sciences (pp. 871-890). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Mesquita, B., & Leu, J. (2007). The cultural psychology of emotions. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology (pp. 734-759). New York: Guildford.
Morsbach, H. (1988). Nonverbal communication and hierarchical relationships: The case of bowing in Japan. In F. Poyatos (Ed.), Cross-cultural Perspectives in Nonverbal Communication (pp. 189-199). Lewiston, NY: C.J. Hogrefe.
Mosquera, P. M. R., Manstead, A. S., & Fischer, A. H. (2000). The role of honor-related values in the elicitation, experience, and communication of pride, shame, and anger: Spain and the Netherlands compared. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(7), 833-844.
Rygg, K. (2012). Direct and indirect communicative styles: A study in sociopragmatics and intercultural communication based on interview discourse with Norwegian and Japanese business executives. Unpublished doctorial dissertation University of Bergen. Norway.
Scheflen, A. E. (1972). Body Language and the Social Order: Communication as Behavioral Control. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.
Tsai, J. L. (2007). Ideal affect: Cultural causes and behavioral consequences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(3), 242-259.
Vrij, A., & Winkel, F. W. (1992). Crosscultural Police‐Citizen Interactions: The Influence of Race, Beliefs, and Nonverbal Communication on Impression Formation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(19), 1546-1559.
Watson, O. M. (1970). Proxemic behavior: A cross-cultural study (Vol. 8). The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton De Gruyter.
Watson, O. M., & Graves, T. D. (1966). Quantitative Research in Proxemic Behavior. American Anthropologist, 68(4), 971-985.
Wolfgang, A. (1979). Nonverbal behavior: Applications and cultural implications. New York: Academic Press.

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.