Paralanguage: Conveying meaning through ways of Speaking
Body language is important in sending signals during conversations. So-called regulators are nonverbal actions or behaviors which serve to direct or manage conversations. Of significant importance in cross-cultural communication are aspects of paralanguage, such as tone of voice, rate of speech, or loudness. Tone and intonation can have a determining effect on the message conveyed, turning a statement, for example, into a sarcastic comment. The volume, fluency, or rhythm of speech can transmit to the listener information such as degree of confidence, nervousness, or even perceived trustworthiness of the speaker. Our cultural backgrounds tend to lead us to make assumptions about another person's intentions or feelings based on paralinguistic clues. Harry Triandis (1994) provides a dramatic example of misinterpreting vocal clues:
In January, 1991, James Baker, then the United States Secretary of State, met with Tariq Aziz, the Foreign Minister of Iraq. They met in an effort to reach an agreement that would prevent a war. Also present in the room was the half-brother of Saddam Hussein, whose role included frequent calls to Hussein with updates on the talks. Baker stated, in his standard calm manner, that the US. would attack if Iraq did not move out of Kuwait. Hussein ’s half-brother heard these words and reported that “The Americans will not attack. They are weak. They are calm. They are not angry. They are only talking.” Six days later Iraq saw Desert Storm and the loss of about 175,000 of their citizens. Triandis argued that Iraqis attend to how something is said more than what is said. He further suggests that if Baker had pounded the table, yelled, and shown outward signs of anger, the outcome may have been entirely different (Martin & Nakayama, 2010, p. 277).
The voice qualities of a speaker can be as important in conveying a message as the semantic value of the words spoken. If someone is articulate and coherent, we tend to form a favorable impression, leading to an instinctive feeling that the person is trustworthy. If someone is hesitant and imprecise in speech, we may gain an unfavorable opinion, no matter what it is that the person says. Scholars who engage in conversation analysis have shown even slight modifications in voice tone or intonation can send a message to the listener. John Gumperz (1982), for example, provides a number of examples of misunderstanding between Indians speaking English and native Britons due to prosody, or the vocalic shaping of utterances, including pitch, volume, and tempo.
One of the phenomena that contributes to managing conversation are vocalizations, sounds that do not carry on their own any meaning. These might be fillers or vocalized pauses, such as "er" or "uh-huh" in English or "Este…" in Spanish. Often they are used as conversational backchannels, indicating to the speaker that we are listening. In some cases, vocal regulators may be misinterpreted in cross-cultural contexts. The Japanese filler hai hai is often used by natives in the meaning of "I hear you", but given that hai literally means "yes" there may be misunderstanding in a non-native assuming a positive affirmation, rather than merely an acknowledgement of having heard the speaker. Vocalizations may also provide guidance in turn-taking or indicate that a listener is ready to move on to another topic.
One of the role vocalizations play is to function as a backchannel in conversations, a way for a listener to send messages to the speaker (Yngve, 1970). This may consist in English o sounds such as "uh-huh" or "hmm", or words and phrases like "yes" or "go on". Backchannel responses play different roles; they may encourage the speaker to continue, indicate the extent of interest, or assess the speaker's statements, i.e., agreeing ("Right”) or expressing doubt ("Do you really think so?”). There may be more than simple words or phrases involved, namely longer utterances completing the speaker's sentences, requesting clarification, or attempting to take the floor. Background communication occurs across cultures, but may vary in norms and expectations, which can cause confusion or awkwardness.
How conversations flow varies with culture and context. In situations in which a strict hierarchy is present or when the interaction is highly formal, there may be fixed patterns for managing a conversation and signaling when it is over. In such situations, interrupting a speaker may be inappropriate. There are conversational norms which may play a role. In particular cultures, it is common, even expected, for others to interrupt a speaker frequently. In France, for example, this is seen as part of what constitutes a good conversation.
[Interruptions] signal interest in the other’s remark, which merits a commentary, a word of appreciation, denial, protest, or laughter–in short, a reaction without which the remark would ‘fall flat.’ The ball is tossed to be caught and tossed back. Where there is no ‘interruption,’ when each person speaks sedately in turn (as in American conversation, according to the French), the conversation never ‘takes off’; it remains polite, formal, cold (Carroll, 1988, p. 37).
While this kind of spontaneity and frequent back-and-forth is seen by the French (and in other cultures) as stimulating, it may be seen by some as chaotic or rude.
Some paralinguistic behaviors are instinctive, others are learned. South Koreans, for example, are socialized into avoiding loud speaking or laughing in public. In some cultures, the use of silence can be an important aspect of communication. In the US, long pauses in conversations are awkward. In Finland and in some Asian cultures, silence is valued as offering time for thought or reflection, or as a sign of respect, allowing time for the interlocutor to finish. In his ethnographic study of the Western Apache Native American tribe, Keith Basso (1970) reported that silence was used for "unscripted" social situations, such as unforeseen encounters, talking with strangers, first dates, times of mourning, or greeting those who had been away for an extended period of time. Later, Charles Braithwaite (1999) expanded the study of the role of silence to a variety of cultures, in which silence tends to be part of the communicative pattern. He confirmed Basso's findings that silence is seen in communication situations in which there is uncertainty, ambiguity, or unpredictability. He also found that silence is often used in conversations in which the participants represent different positions of power or authority.
One of the aspects of speech which affect listener perception is the speaker's accent. Non-native accents can often stigmatize the speaker, evoking stereotypes associated with social class, ethnic background, economic status, or level of education. In some cases, a particular accent, such as a British accent in the US, is perceived positively. In most cases, however, accents are perceived negatively and may have real-world consequences for the speaker in terms of discrimination in personal encounters or institutional settings.
Physical appearance and dress
One of the important nonverbal signals all humans send comes through our appearance, i.e. how we dress, arrange our hair, or use body art. Many cultures have rules and conventions for dress and appearance, established through custom or religious beliefs. Women in Muslim countries, for example, dress so that their hair is covered and, in some cases, also their bodies and faces. In some cases, dress can provide information about social/economic position, marital status, or age. In Japan, women's komodos vary according to the time of year and occasion, but also based on marital status and age. For the Masai tribe in Kenya, earrings and necklaces designate the marital status of women, while men wear earrings and arm rings that show their social status, indicating whether they are elders or warriors (Vandehey, Buergh & Krueger, 1996). In rural northern India, the level of a woman's veil over her face can indicate romantic interest or disinterest (Lambert & Wood, 2005). Dress and physical appearance can be important identifiers for membership in particular groups. Members of motorcycle gangs wear black leather and heavy boots. Japanese businessmen ("salarymen") wear dark, conservative suits and plain ties. Japanese tourists often wear a resort hotel's yukata (a lightweight komodo) signaling to others in the town their role (Ting-Toomey, 1999). In this way, forms of dress serve as identity markers. Certain uniforms signal professions, as in the case of police officers or members of the military, while also conveying a sense of authority and power.
Body piercings and tattoos, in bygone days, indicators of low-prestige socio-economic status (sailors, carnival workers), have become mainstream among young people in the US and elsewhere. Older people are likely to retain the images from the past and may have a negative view of heavily tattooed or pierced young people. One of the persistent stereotypes is in regards to women's dress and appearance. Young women in mini skirts and tank tops, especially if blonde, may be perceived as flighty and unintelligent. Muslim women wearing a hijab face prejudice and discrimination in many non-Muslim countries, which is even more pronounced for those wearing a whole body burqua. In some Western countries, wearing traditional Muslim female dress in public or in schools has been banned. In the US, hooded sweatshirts (hoodies) are often associated with young black men. In Florida, a young black man, Treyvon Martin, was wearing a hoodie when shot dead by a white "neighborhood watch" member as he was returning from a convenience store. The white man found Martin "suspicious", due to his skin color and attire.
Appearance messages are generally the first nonverbal codes we process, sizing up the other person based on skin color, appearance, and clothing. The first impression might determine our attitude towards another person, helping to determine whether we want to get to know that person or not. Sometimes, some features of the other person's appearance might lead to specific pre-judgments. One of those might be the particular shade of skin. Black people with darker skin are sometimes viewed as somehow less attractive or having lower status than Blacks with lighter skin. Light-skinned Blacks may feel discriminated against as well (see sidebar). In South American countries such as Brazil, there is a rich mix of ethnicities and races, resulting in a wide range of skin colors and a complex social hierarchy, built in part on the particular shade of one's skin.
Different Shades of Black Identity
If you are a light-skinned Black person, you are looked upon as "uppity" or thinking that you’re too good. This is something I have come across a lot. For my first year of college, I attended the first historically Black college, Lincoln University. It was my first time being around that many African Americans (the high school I attended was mostly Caucasian). I am naturally shy, so I would walk around not speaking to anyone. In many cases I would walk around looking at the ground or just with no expression on my face whatsoever. I was viewed as the "uppity" light-skinned girl who thought she was too good for everyone else. - Ami
Remland et al., 2014, p. 149.
In some cases, we are conscious of the distinctive views we may have towards those with a certain appearance. Many US Americans, for example, have heard so much since 2001 about Muslims and terrorism, that someone perceived to be Muslim by their appearance and dress likely triggers already well-established and self-acknowledged views on Muslims. The largely negative stereotypes can have tragic consequences, as the acts of violence towards Muslims in the US and elsewhere has shown. In some cases, the perceived target may not even represent the intended group. The first victim of revenge killing in the US following the September 11, 2001 attacks was not a Muslim, but a Sikh gas station manager in Arizona shot down by a man vowing to kill "towel heads" (Basu, 2016).
In many cases individuals may not be aware of the negative attitudes towards others. Humans naturally tend to categorize, and that process includes grouping together other humans. We likely do that with individuals we meet without being aware of this process of implicit bias. This is a phenomenon that scientists have been studying for some time, namely that even well-meaning people have hidden prejudices against those of other races. Studies have shown subtle biases are widespread in the US, especially against Blacks, and lead to discrimination in many areas, including in education, professional life, and housing (Yudkin at al., 2016). In the US recently, the issue has arisen in connection with white police officer's using violence against unarmed young black men. Studies have shown that "implicit bias can be overcome with rational deliberation" (Yadkin & Van Bavel, 2016). Many police departments in the US have begun the process of making police officers aware of their biases. Project Implicit from Harvard university provides an online process for analyzing one's possible biases in a number of areas, including attitudes towards race, skin tone, religion, sexuality, Arab/Muslims, age, disability, and weight. These are all areas in which implicit bias may be present in individuals in the US. Other cultures are likely to have some of the same biases, along with others. In recent years, corporations in North America have begun to offer training to employees to make them aware of hidden biases in an effort to treat their customers equitably, regardless of race or ethnicity. Whether such training is effective – particularly when offered in one-time short training seminars — is questionable (Godwin-Jones, 2018).
Nonverbal expectancy violation theory
As in other areas tied to cultural values and behaviors, people develop an expectation of conformity with the conventions of the culture, in this case with the unwritten rules of nonverbal behavior. In the US, we don't expect women to wear headscarves as normal everyday attire. We do expect to shake hands upon meeting someone for the first time, which may not happen if, as a non-related man, we are meeting a Muslim woman. Such occurrences are, in the formulation of Judee Burgoon (1978), violations of nonverbal expectancy. According to this theory, people have expectations about the appropriateness of nonverbal behavior, which is learned and culturally driven. When these expectations are violated, it produces a reaction she describes as "arousal", which can be physiological or cognitive, positive or negative. Our reaction depends on the severity of the violation, the nature of the person (such as attractiveness), and the implicit message associated with the violation. The context and the person will determine our reaction. If a person standing too close at a party (thereby violating personal space) is attractive and well groomed, the reaction is likely to be quite different than if that person is perceived as slovenly and unattractive.
Reactions to violations of nonverbal codes depend as well on the nature of our communicative and cultural environment. If we are accustomed to high-context communications, we may be more dependent on nonverbal messages and are therefore more adept at decoding nonverbal behavior. In that case, for example, silence might be evaluated positively and perceived quite differently than it is in cultures where periods of silence in a conversation run counter to expectations. In intercultural communication contexts, violations of expectations by a non-native could be seen as naïve/endearing or strange/rude depending on how we view that person. Using Hofstede's cultural categories, Burgoon points out that violating norms in high uncertainty avoidance cultures is likely to be less acceptable. On the other hand, countries with lower power distance may be more flexible in terms of rules about verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
In the South Asian countries, sitting with one’s back towards someone older in age or authority, or having the soles of one’s feet face someone older in age or stature or authority, or books – the source of knowledge, or the altar, is considered very rude (Malik, personal communication, September 18, 2017). That is the reason why one is unlikely to find book shelves or altars at the feet of the bed or against or on the wall facing the feet of the bed. It is also considered inappropriate to have an altar or, occasionaly, the photographs of one’s ancestors in a bedroom that is likely to be used as a conjugal bedroom.
One of the cultural norms that may lead to adverse reactions is the public display of affection. In most Western cultures, there has long been acceptance of heterosexual couples touching and kissing in public. The degree to which this occurs differs. Researchers have found that this is more common, for example, among French and Italian young couples than in the US (Field, 1999; DiBiase & Gunnoe, 2004). Acceptance of homosexual couples is widespread today in many Western countries, but not in many other parts of the world. In most Muslim cultures, the strict separation of unmarried people disallows even heterosexual contact in public. In India, some public displays of affection are taboo. In 2007, US actor Richard Gere faced widespread condemnation in India, after kissing Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at a televised fund-raising event. A photo of the kiss made front-page news across India, and effigies and photos of both Gere and Shetty were burned. An Indian court issued an arrest warrant for Gere, as he had "transgressed all limits of vulgarity" (Indian Court, 2007).
It is of course not possible to know all the ins and outs of nonverbal transgressions in every country. On the other hand, it is certainly possible to be informed about the cultural practices in countries which we plan to visit or among local communities with whom we are likely to have contact. To the extent possible, we should act in accordance with the cultural expectations. That might mean taking off shoes before entering a home, or dressing more modestly then we would normally. On the other hand, we may oppose particular practices for religious, political, or philosophical reasons, and consciously refuse to adapt to local customs. That might mean, for example, women not accepting the prescribed cultural role in behavior, bearing, or dress expected in a particular culture. In general, it is good practice to anticipate nonverbal expectations to the degree possible. Even if we don't know the specifics of expectations in a given culture, we can certainly observe and learn. Burgoon's theory suggests that if we are well-intentioned, yet unaware of specific practices, it is likely others will be lenient in overlooking transgressions. In fact, it may be that expectations for foreigners in this regard are different than they are for natives. Koreans, for example, would likely not expect foreigners be familiar with the intricacies of bowing as they interface with Korean social hierarchies.
Music: Another way to communicate nonverbally
Music is a "universal language" in that it is understood without the need for language. Music plays many different roles in human society – entertaining, comforting, inspiring, socializing, and more. It can bring people together (anthems, concert venues, singing together, celebratory music) or pull them apart (protest songs, generational differences in taste, distasteful/hateful lyrics). Two examples from Germany illustrate that contrast. The Horst Wessel Lied was the anthem of Nazi Germany, celebrating violence and hatred. Beethoven's Ode to Joy (the last movement of the 9th Symphony, based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller) has been adopted as the unofficial anthem of the European Union. It celebrates brotherhood and solidarity. Our interest here is in music as a marker of cultural identity and as a non-verbal form of contact and communication across cultures.
Ethnomusicology is the study of music in cultural context. Like intercultural communication, the field involves contributions from many different disciplines. From the beginning, a major focus has been on non-Western music, with many practitioners engaged in ethnographic fieldwork. That involves learning about and documenting the music, language, and cultural practices of underrepresented ethnic groups. One of the pioneers of this field was Alan Lomax, who recorded folk music in the US and Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. His work contributed to the folk music revival of that time. Today, there are efforts underway to preserve endangered indigenous music traditions, just as there are to save languages from extinction. Catherine Grant's book, Music Endangerment (2004) chronicles some of those efforts.
In recent decades, ethnomusicologists have been particularly interested in the effects of globalization on music traditions worldwide. The popularity of rock 'n' roll music in the late 20th century, for example, spread not only the English language worldwide, but also particular values and practices of Anglo-American youth culture. Globalization has resulted in the development of many hybridized musical forms. Traditional folk music in many parts of the world, and among diaspora communities, is often mixed with modern musical genres, resulting in new musical and cultural mixes. Immigrant communities will often have complex music practices. Young people are likely to listen to mainstream popular music but also be exposed to traditional music of their culture by way of religious, celebratory, or family events. Older members of the community may try to maintain a "pure" musical tradition as a means to maintain their culture within an encompassing foreign culture with different values and language.
Fock (1997) examines the complexity of such an immigrant community in the case of Turks in Copenhagen, Denmark. She chronicles how Turkish music is viewed differently when heard in different locales. If played in a Turkish restaurant, for example, Turkish music is received favorably by Danes, as a contribution to an appropriately "exotic" atmosphere. However, hearing Turkish music played at a street kiosk may be perceived negatively, giving the "Danish customers the feeling of not belonging" (Fock, 1997, p.56). A third encounter might be even more irritating for Danes:
Out on the street again you might hear heavy Turkish pop from a car driving by. Again the result probably is irritation, but now combined with an interpretation in the direction of social rejection: ‘They are giving the Danish society the finger’. Car-blasting is a normal phenomenon within youth culture, yet when it is performed by youngsters with Turkish background it is often interpreted in a special cultural and provocative way (p. 56).
In fact, the young Turks are likely intent not on irritating Danes, but on attracting the attention of those of their own generation, especially girls.
Music has been a vital part of worldwide youth cultures since at least the 1950s. Today, musical genres easily cross political and linguistic boundaries. In some cases, imported musical genres are subsequently adapted to local conditions. That is the case for hip-hop or rap music. It originated in the Bronx section of New York City, soon moving to urban centers on both the east and west coast of the US, and then around the globe. Hip-hop involves not just music, but also socio-political narratives about poverty and street life. It is also associated with certain forms of dress – low hanging pants, gaudy jewelry, caps worn sidewise, dark glasses. From the beginning, hip-hop culture was linked to place, with DJ's (disc jockeys) having their own "territory" (Sorrells, 2015). It was also early associated with the use of gang-derived "tagging" (marking territory), transformed eventually into graffiti.
As hip-hop has found its way into other cultures, the local characteristics and concerns have been integrated. In Germany, for example, some of the best known rap music has been created by Turkish Germans and touches on issues of identity and integration. Similar trends are evident elsewhere:
While the communicative practices of hip hop cultures around the world are clearly linked to the African diasporic colonial experience, they also rework the qualities of flow, layering, and rupture in their place-based specificity as global forces converge with local forces...Hip hop culture and styles developing in France and Italy provide spaces to address local issues of racism and concerns over police brutality. In Sweden, the hip hop scene among ethnic minorities focuses on constructing a collective oppositional identity to resist the White skinhead youth culture...For Maoris in New Zealand, rap music groups speak out for the rights of indigenous groups around the world. Hip hop in Japan is often used as a means of identity distinction by youth who want to mark themselves as different from the mainstream culture (Sorrells, 2015, pp. 85–86).
The use in other contexts of certain forms and practices originating in US black inner-city environments raises the issue of cultural appropriation. Some may find it disrespectful or inauthentic for white rappers to borrow and rework Black cultural practices, developed out of a struggle for recognition and identity in ghetto communities. Others may point out that in fact rap music is today a profit-making business and this commodification of an art form liberates it in some way from being bound to its origins. However that may be, rap has become so integrated into the music scene in so many countries as to make its origins mute. The music itself retains many critics, who may accept the music as supplying a voice to those on the fringes of society, but who still find that many rappers continue to perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes and prejudices around communities of color, violence, misogyny, and homophobia (Remland, 2014).