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5.4: Communicating Nonverbally (Summary)

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    From theory to practice...

    Here are some considerations in respect to nonverbal communication in intercultural encounters:

    Be cautious in making assumptions based on nonverbal actions. The same gestures may have quite different meanings in different cultures. We often tend to assume body language and gestures are universal, but that is not the case.

    Try to understand the cultural values attached to nonverbal conventions. In following the technique of "thick descriptions" of cultural phenomena, try to penetrate beneath the surface of the behavior. Consider as well whether the behavior may be personal and idiosyncratic, rather than cultural and typical.

    Watch and imitate as appropriate. In some cases, adopting the different nonverbal behavior might be easy and straightforward, for example, bowing in Japan. In other cases, divergence might be more appropriate, for example, refraining from kneeling along with Muslims in prayer services.

    For discussion and reflection...

    1. Using nonverbal communication

    After watching the TED videos by Amy Cuddy and Ron Gutman, address the following:

    In your view, what effect do nonverbal actions and behaviors, like smiling or body posture, have on relating with others? Are they important in work spaces, school, or family environments? What are, in your opinion the most effective nonverbal strategies in being effective in communicating, or being successful in work or school? Discuss any experiences you have had in this area.

    1. Violating non-verbal norms and conventions

    Using the "Non-verbal expectancy violation model" (see the section of the text with this title), describe some cultural or intercultural violation you have experienced or witnessed (as the one who violated others' expectations, or as the one whose expectations were violated).

    • Does the violation bring "arousal"?
    • How does the person perceiving the violation evaluate the action? The communicator?
    • What is the person's response?
    • What factors might lead to a positive or negative response to a violation?
    • What are the strengths and limitations of the theory?
    1. Appearance and assumptions

    After reading the Salbi essay and watching the talk by Abdel-Magied..

    Salbi and Abdel-Magied give examples of assumptions made about women wearing headscarves. What other clothing items or style of dress may lead to automatic judgments about the wearer? How about perceptions of those with significant body modifications (tattoos, piercings)? What role, if any, do perceptions vary based on age, gender, national origin, or other factors?

    1. Images and emotions in electronic communication After watching the talks by el Kaliouby and Uglow..

    What's your take on "emotionally intelligent technology"? The Apple Watch allows users to "share an intimate moment with a close friend or family member by sending them your heartbeat"; would you want to go further and send "emotion streams" from a smartwatch or other device? How important are images (photos and videos) in how you currently communicate electronically? To what extent can images (or emoji?) play the role of sharing emotions? Can you imagine additional kinds of media or devices beyond those described by Uglow that would allows us to access information and potentially also feelings?

    Key terms

    • Adaptors: Mostly unconscious nonverbal actions that satisfy physiological or psychological needs, such as scratching an itch
    • Affect displays: Non-verbal presentations of emotion, primarily communicated through facial expressions
    • Cultural appropriation: The adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture
    • Digital storytelling: Short form of digital media production, typically depicting some aspect of someone's life story
    • Display rules: A social group's informal norms about when, where, and how one should express emotions
    • Emblems: Primarily hand gestures that have a direct verbal translation; can be used to repeat or to substitute for verbal communication
    • Ethnomusicology: The study of music in its cultural context
    • Eye contact: The act of looking directly into one another's eyes
    • Gesture: A form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of, or in conjunction with, speech
    • Haptics: Non-verbal communication through physical contact or touch
    • Illustrators: Primarily hand and arm movements that function to accent or complement speech
    • Implicit bias: The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner, especially in relation to other people
    • Kinesics: General category of body motion, including emblems, illustrators, affect displays, and adaptors
    • Linguistic landscape: Study of languages on public and commercial signs in a given area
    • Mashup: Web resource that uses content from more than one source to create a single new service displayed in a single graphical interface
    • Prosody: The patterns of stress and intonation in a language
    • Nonverbal expectancy violations theory: Theory that posits that people hold expectations about the nonverbal behavior of others. When these expectations are violated, people evaluate the violation positively or negatively, depending on the source of the violation.
    • Olfactics: The perception and use of smell, scent, and odor
    • Paralanguage: Characteristics of the voice, such as pitch, rhythm, intensity, volume, and rate
    • Personal space: The physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment may feel threatening or uncomfortable
    • Proxemics: The perception and use of space, including territoriality and personal space
    • Regulators: Behaviors/actions that govern, direct, or manage conversations
    • Semiotics: Study of signs, symbols, and signification; how meaning is created
    • Signal: A sign naturally connected to its referent
    • Signifier: A sign's physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) as distinct from its meaning
    • Signified: the meaning or idea expressed by a sign, as distinct from the physical form in which it is expressed
    • Spaced repetition: Learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect
    • Symbol: An arbitrarily selected and learned stimulus representing something else
    • Territoriality: How people use space to communicate ownership/occupancy of areas and possessions
    • Vocalization: Mostly involuntary vocal utterances such as laughing, crying, sighing



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    • Dresser, N. (2005). Multicultural Matters. John Wiley.
    • Grant, C. (2014). Music endangerment: How language maintenance can help. Oxford University Press.

    "Can words really account for only 7 percent of the meaning of a spoken message? This short video animation puts 'Mehrabian's rule' under the magnifying glass."

    TED description: "Ron Gutman reviews a raft of studies about smiling, and reveals some surprising results. Did you know your smile can be a predictor of how long you'll live - and that a simple smile has a measurable effect on your overall well-being? Prepare to flex a few facial muscles as you learn more about this evolutionarily contagious behavior."

    TED description: "On any given day we're lied to from 10 to 200 times, and the clues to detect those lie can be subtle and counter-intuitive. Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, shows the manners and 'hotspots' used by those trained to recognize deception - and she argues honesty is a value worth preserving."

    TED description: "Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how 'power posing' - standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don't feel confident - can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success."

    TED talk by Scott Rouse

    TED description: "What do you think when you look at this speaker? Well, think again. (And then again.) In this funny, honest, empathetic talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied challenges us to look beyond our initial perceptions, and to open doors to new ways of supporting others."

    TED essay: "Zainab Salbi argues that the global fixation with a Muslim woman's decision to wear a headscarf - or not - is overly simplistic - and irrelevant."

    Are there new and different - and more intimate and natural - ways for us to gather information?
    TED description: "Designer Tom Uglow is creating a future in which humanity's love for natural solutions and simple tools can coexist with our need for information and the devices that provide us with it. 'Reality is richer than screens,' he says. 'We can have a happy place filled with the information we love that feels as natural as switching on lightbulb.'"

    TED description: "Our emotions influence every aspect of our lives - how we learn, how we communicate, how we make decisions. Yet they're absent from our digital lives; the devices and apps we interact with have no way of knowing how we feel. Scientist Rana el Kaliouby aims to change that. She demos a powerful new technology that reads your facial expressions and matches them to corresponding emotions. This 'emotion engine' has big implications, she says, and could change not just how we interact with machines - but with each other."


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    Photo credits

    Bow: John Wigham [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    Hongi: Kiri Dell

    Moutza against the Greek parliament. By Ggia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    Eye contact By David Shankbone - David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Thumbs up: Airman Krystal Ardrey

    Couple: Glenn Loos-Austin

    Child: Pexabay

    Horns: White House

    woman in niqab By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

    Hongi: Kiri Dell

    Baker: US Department of State

    Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1916 By Harris & Ewing - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.20061.

    Personal space: Steve Gray

    Woman and rose:

    This page titled 5.4: Communicating Nonverbally (Summary) is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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