Kinesics is a type of nonverbal communication that involves body movement and activities (also called body language). The four main types of kinesic communication are: emblems, illustrators, regulators, affect displays.
Emblems are body movements that can be translated into words and that are used intentionally to transmit a message. One type of emblem that is particularly important, perhaps ranking second only to facial expressions, is hand gestures. People talk with their hands. Hand gestures like the thumbs up or the thumb and forefinger circle (okay) sign, the palm outward gesture (silence, or stop), and circling a forefinger near one’s head (crazy) all have a widely understood meaning in the United States. But the meanings of these emblems may be quite different in another nation. For example, the thumb and forefinger circle is a sign for the sex act in some Latin American nations. So hand gestures can be very confusing interculturally. As with verbal language, nonverbal codes are not universal. There are gender differences as well as cultural differences in hand gestures. An emblem unique to Japanese women is the hand held in front of the mouth when smiling or laughing. People from the United States perceive this gesture as girlish, polite, and cute. Only women in Japan cover their mouth when smiling. Men never do.
In addition to hand gestures, head movements can also communicate nonverbally. Like hand movements, head movements differ from one culture to another. In India the head gesture for a positive response to a question is a sideways movement which is perceived by most non-Indians as a head shake meaning no. But after visiting India for a period of time, the typical foreigner is likely to have picked up the sideways head nod. When the person returns to the home country and uses shaking the head sideways to mean yes, further confusion occurs. In Turkey, an up-and-down movement of the head conveys a negative rather than a positive expression.
Illustrators are a type of kinesic behavior that accompanies what is said verbally. Hand and body gestures are a natural part of speaking for most individuals. Illustrators include gesturing with one’s hands, smiling or frowning. They are particularly noticeable when an individual is giving directions to a certain place. Illustrators differ from emblems in that they cannot be translated into words.
Regulators are kinesic behaviors that control turn-taking and other procedural aspects of interpersonal communication. A practical necessity in every conversation is to determine who is going to speak first, next, and so on. This process of turn-taking is mainly an unconscious process. Sometimes problems occur, such as when two or more people talk at once and no one can be understood. Usually this behavior occurs when individuals are excited or angry. In most conversations, turn-taking proceeds smoothly because of regulators like the turn of a head, gaze, and other body movements.
Gaze is an important type of regulator. A speaker who maintains eye contact with members of the audience is perceived as a forceful presenter in the United States. But direct eye contact with elders is perceived as disrespectful by some Native Americans and in Asian cultures like Japan. It is extremely impolite to gaze at one’s grandparent’s eyes. Japanese children are taught to gaze at their grandparent’s Adam’s apple instead. Appropriate gazing behavior can have important consequences in certain communication situations.
Affect displays are kinesic behaviors that express emotions. Facial expressions are one of the most important ways of communicating meaning to another person. For example, surprise is conveyed by arching the eyebrows, opening the eyelids so that the white of the eye shows. In contrast, the emotion of fear is shown by raising the eyebrows and drawing them together, while tensing the lips and drawing them back. Disgust is conveyed by wrinkling the nose, lowering the eyebrows, and raising the upper lip. The facial expressions for anger, happiness, and sadness are generally universal across all cultures, but other emotions are expressed differently depending on particular cultural constraints. Rules for expressing emotions vary depending on the culture. All cultures have display rules telling members when it is appropriate to show emotion and when to hide it. Affect displays can occur via crying, laughing, and even by one’s posture.
Proxemics is nonverbal communication that involves space. The word Proxemics derives from the same Latin root as proximity, implying that one dimension of space is how close or distant two or more people are located. How physically close or distant two people stand when they talk tells a great deal about their relationship. A distance of only eight to thirteen inches between males, for example, is considered very aggressive. When a European American talks with a Latin American, the former feels that the Latin American is uncomfortably “pushy” or trying to be intimate, while the Latin American perceives the person from the United States as cold and remote. Arabic people from the Middle East do no9t feel that someone is friendly unless they are standing close enough to smell the garlic on the other’s breath. Clearly, there are strong cultural differences in perception of the appropriate space between people involved in interpersonal communication.
People are often unaware that their culture has assigned meaning to the distances between communicators. Even if we are aware that cultures have different definitions of appropriate spacing, our emotions often override that information. Proxemics conveys a very important message about interpersonal relationships, but the definitions are culture-bound. In the United States, a smaller social distance indicates intimacy and communicates a close personal relationship. In other cultures, one cannot use the same standards to interpret relationships.When people are forced by a building, a room, or other constraints to stand at a distance closer than their culture would indicate is appropriate for conversation, they seldom talk. For example, have you ever observed communication among people on a crowded elevator? They generally avoid eye contact, remain silent, and tense their bodies. Touching another person, even accidentally, is embarrassing and leads to an apology.Space affects human communication in many other ways. For instance, whether or not individuals remain behind their desks when visitors enter their offices is an unstated message about friendliness or formality. Classroom arrangements of desks and chairs can determine how much discussion takes place in a class. A circular arrangement generally encourages discussion, while sitting in rows often discourages student participation.
Religious values may affect spatial arrangements. For example, the Navajo always build their hogans (six- or eight-sided one-story structures) facing east, in order to face the rising sun. According to traditional beliefs, a Navajo should begin the day by running toward the sun. Islamic people believe that the main entrance of important buildings should face in the direction of Mecca.Space also affects who talks to whom. For example, employees in an office whose desks are located closer are more likely to communicate. Families who live in neighboring homes are more likely to become friends than those who live farther away, even though the spatial difference may be negligible. New communication technologies like the Internet may overcome the effect of spatial distance on the frequency of communication. E-mail effectively removes spatial barriers whether two people are working in adjoining buildings or are located across the world from each other.
Another important dimension of nonverbal communication is time. Chronemics is the way in which time affects communication. The amount of time elapsed before being considered late for an appointment varies widely from culture to culture. The Japanese are extremely prompt in meeting with someone at an appointed time. It is considered very rude to keep someone waiting even for several minutes. Many Japanese students have never been late for a class. In contrast, individuals in Latin America and the Middle East are extremely relaxed about punctuality.
The length of time for a certain type of communication may also be culturally determined. Let’s take the following example. An American was invited by officials in a Japanese advertising agency to a 10.00 a.m. meeting at their office in Tokyo. The topic was interesting, and the discussions were exciting. But after 11.00 a.m., the visitor noticed that he was the only one talking. The Japanese officials seemed to have lost any interest in the discussion. Later, he learned that the appointment had been pre-set for one hour. Because Japan is a high-context culture, this point was not explained to the visitor. It was assumed that he knew. The Japanese officials had other appointments at 11.00 a.m.
Time can be organized into technical, formal, and informal components. Scientists developed the atomic clock to be the most accurate available; time is measured by the vibration of electrons in atoms. Formal time involves the process of separating units of time into days, weeks, and months. In the United States, formal time is used for precise appointments: government hearings, court dates, job interviews. Informal time in the same culture has a more loosely defined (within limits) approximation: 8.00 can mean anywhere between 8.00 and 8.15 to 8.50. Informal time involves attitudes about punctuality within a culture.
Symbolic uses of time can be related to a person’s or culture’s orientation. In the West, time is viewed as a linear progression from the past, to the present, to the future. Other cultures do not segment events the same way. Some cultures have a reverence for past experience; they value precedent and reject the present as untested. Other cultures have a future orientation – visions of how life will be. Others find both looking backward and forward irrelevant – the present is what counts.
Language can reveal a culture’s attitudes towards time. In the United States we “spend” time; “time is money”; and we ask if we can “have some of your time?”
Haptics is nonverbal communication that involves touching. Individuals within a culture vary as to the degree to which they touch while speaking, and there are important differences in touching from culture to culture. Touching is usually intended to convey warmth, caring, and other positive emotions; but it may be playful or show irritation. Hugging or kissing as a greeting conveys intimacy.
A set of cultural conventions guides who may touch whom, under what conditions, and where to touch. For instance, same-sex touching in the United States is more permissible than cross-sex touching. Male-to-male touching is much less frequent (except in sports) than female-to-female touching, perhaps out of fear that such touching might be perceived as indicating a sexual preference. The difference is the displays of touching are not only gender based, they are also determined by status. In business, higher-status employees generally initiate touch; lower-status employees are less likely to do so since the behavior could be interpreted as assuming a familiarity which does not exist.
Shaking hands is an example of differing cultural perceptions. In the United States, a moist handshake transmits a message that the individual is nervous or anxious. Most people in that culture think that a firm handshake is appropriate, and that a weak handshake is wimpy. In India, where handshaking is not practiced very widely as a form of greeting, a rather limp handshake is culturally appropriate. Indians generally greet each other by holding their palms together in front of their chest. In Korea and in Mali a person touches his/her right forearm with the left hand while shaking hands. Moroccans kiss the other person’s hand while shaking. Islamic men may greet each other by embracing and kissing first on one cheek and then on the other. Thais greet each other with a wai (pronounced “wi”), which is executed by placing the hands together in a praying position in front of the chest. Japanese people greet each other with a bow. The depth of the bow depends on the other person’s status. Bows entail bending at the waist at about 30 degrees, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, depending on the relative status of the other person. One should not rise from the bow until the person of higher status has risen. The arms should be at the sides while bowing and one should gaze downward. A common greeting between a Japanese person and a foreigner is to bow while shaking hands.
Paralanguage is vocal communication other than the verbal content. In addition to loudness, paralanguage includes the speed of speaking, accent, tone. Often, hearing a stranger’s voice (in a telephone conversation, for example) is sufficient to guess the person’s gender, ethnic group, age. Voice is a means by which individuals can be identified nonverbally.
Loudness of voice when speaking is another type of nonverbal communication. Generally, we speak more loudly when we are more distant from the person we are addressing or when we are in a public speaking situation, such as in a classroom. Males often speak more loudly than females. Asians generally speak softly, with Asian women speaking even more softly than men. Most Thais speak very softly, and it is considered good manners to do so. In Arabic nations, males speak loudly in order to indicate sincerity. North Americans consider this volume aggressive. A Saudi Arabian also lowers his voice in order to show respect for a superior. Emotions such as anger, excitement, or enthusiasm may be conveyed by speaking in a loud voice.