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5.2: Types of Nonverbal Communication

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    Types of Nonverbal Behaviors

    One reason that nonverbal communication is so rich with information is that humans use so many different aspects of behavior, appearance, and environment to convey meaning. These types of nonverbal communication can vary considerably across cultures. Every culture interprets posture, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, vocal noises, use of space, degree of territory, and time differently. Scholars call the different means used for transmitting information nonverbal communication codes (Burgoon & Hoobler, 2002). The general codes for nonverbal communication we examine in this section are: kinesics, vocalics, proxemics, haptics, physical appearance and artifacts, olfactics, music, chronemics, and space. As you read through this section, remember that the cultural patterns embedded in nonverbal codes should be used not as stereotypes for all members of particular cultures, but rather as tentative guidelines or examples to help you understand the great variation of nonverbal behavior in humans.


    The word kinesics comes from the root word kinesis, which means “movement,” and refers to the study of hand, arm, body, and face movements. It is thought by some to be the richest nonverbal code in terms of its power to communicate meaning. Specifically, this section will outline the use of gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and posture as kinetic forms of nonverbal communication.


    One of the most common forms of gestures involve greetings and departures, which have rituals that are largely nonverbal, such as shaking hands or waving. These tend to vary across cultures. In Japan, for example, it is common to bow when greeting someone, with the nature of the bow (how deep and how long) being determined by the nature of the occasion and social connection of the persons involved. In some cultures, kissing on the cheek is the usual greeting, although how many times the kisses are exchanged and which sexes are included can vary. In other parts of the world there may be hugs and kisses, depending on the context and relationship. In Arab countries it is common to bow and touch the forehead and chest (the salaam) when meeting someone. The Wai is used in Thailand and in other Asian cultures, consisting of a bow with the palms pressed together. In other cultures, people rub noses, such as in the hongi, a traditional greeting of the Maori people in New Zealand. Knowledge of such rituals can be helpful in avoiding awkwardness in first encounters.

    A row of Japanese men bowing.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The bow is common in Japan as a greeting and is used in other contexts, such as apologies.
    David Beckham receives a hongi
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): David Beckham receives a hongi

    One of the richest array of gestures are for communicating insults and obscenities. Insult gestures tend to vary across cultures and are different as well in the extent to which they are used. In Greece, for example, the moutza (μούτζα) is a commonly seen insult gesture. It consists of spreading the fingers (one hand or both) and trusting them outwards, towards the other person (as if flinging something unpleasant). In other cultures, the arm-thrust (bras d'honneur) is used, forging a fist and slapping it upwards under the biceps of the arm. Such gestures can be highly offensive and are often considered obscene. Other gestures may convey skepticism or disbelief, such as the French mon oeil (my eye), using a finger to pull down the lower eyelid. The gesture is also used in Japan, known as the Akanbe (あかんべえ).

    Moutza against the parliament by Greek protesters
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Moutza against the parliament by Greek protesters
    Akanbe gesture in Japan
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Akanbe gesture in Japan

    The caution in using gestures extends to those which may be widespread in a culture, and which we may interpret as universal. The North American A-OK sign (circled thumb and pointer finger, with the other fingers spread out) is an obscene gesture in many European cultures. Likewise, the inverted peace sign – two fingers facing inwards is an insult in England and Australia. The thumbs-up gesture signals in North America well done; in Greece and other countries, it is equivalent to the insulting "Up yours!" (Cotton, 2013). US President George W. Bush famously used the hook ‘em horns gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team to signal his approval of the marching band of the University of Texas. In Italy, that gesture is well-known, but it doesn't signal fan enthusiasm or let's rock. It is called il cornuto, indicating that the other person is a cuckold, that is, that his wife is cheating on him (Cotton, 2013).

    Pointing with the forefinger is a gesture North Americans frequently use. Using that gesture to point at people is in some cultures extremely rude. Likewise, the beckoning gesture with palm turned upward and extending one finger or the whole hand is considered an insult in Japan and other countries. There are a variety of beckoning gestures, in Afghanistan and the Philippines, for example, one motions downward with the palm of the hand facing the ground (Cotton, 2013). These gestures have traditionally been culture-specific. However, the forces of globalization and technology have exposed people worldwide to gestures used in popular media (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2012). Through the greater availability globally of North American television shows and movies, as well as the popularity of social media such as Facebook and YouTube, some North American gestures, such as those for greeting and departure, have become familiar in many other cultures. (Jackson, 2014).

    person with a thumbs up sign
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Thumbs-up may be an insult
    US President George Bush with a hand gesture
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\):US President George Bush

    Facial Expressions

    Facial Expressions communicate an endless stream of emotions, and we make judgments about what others are feeling by assessing their faces. Our use of emoticons to communicate attitudes and emotions in electronic media testifies to the importance of this type of kinesics. It is often claimed that facial expressions – called affects displays – tend to be universal, the idea being that expressing basic emotions is an elemental, instinctive behavior common to all humans. This idea goes back to Charles Darwin (1872) who claimed all humans express emotion in the same way. This was later contradicted by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead (1975). It wasn't until the 1960s that so-called "universality studies" were conducted by Paul Ekman and others. In a series of experiments involving participants from a variety of cultures, they showed that there were six universal expressions — anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and surprise (Ekman, 1972). Later, a seventh expression, contempt, was added (Ekman & Heider, 1988). As the studies involved people from industrialized countries, who may have learned to interpret faces from mass media, other studies were conducted among tribal groups in New Guinea, which came to similar results (Ekman & Friesen, 1971). An interesting experiment conducted with blind athletes produced the same results as their sighted colleagues (Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009). Because the blind athletes could not have learned the behaviors, one can assume there is an innate capacity to display facial expressions.

    a child smiling
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Joy is expressed the same across cultures

    What causes particular emotions and determines their intensity can be quite different, both personally and culturally. Ekman and Friesen (1969) coined the term cultural display rules to describe such cultural differences in facial expressions. Consider the smile: People in all cultures have the ability to smile, but cultures value and interpret smiles in different ways. In other words, the meaning behind a smile is not universal. For example, in Russian, people do not smile because it implies that you are foolish, or possibly sneaky and manipulative. Even in family photos, adults often appear with flat or scowling faces. Many Latin American cultures prefer a proud and elegant facial appearance, which does not include smiling. In Japan, smiling is a way to show respect or to hide what you are actually feeling. In the United States, we smile to show a pleasant face to the people around us, to express happiness and gratitude. We often tend to smile for the purposes of getting along with others (Solomon, 2017). Some cultures tend to be much more expressive and rich in their use of facial expressions than others. Italians and Mediterraneans in general are normally placed in that category, while northern Europeans and Asians are seen as more restrained.

    Codes of general conduct, politeness, or social harmony may influence the public display of emotions. This was shown in a cross-cultural experiment (Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989), which studied facial expressions of Japanese and US students while watching emotionally disturbing films. When both groups of young people were among themselves, they showed the same expressions. However, when the Japanese students were with an older, male observer, they displayed neutral expressions or even smiled, while the US students continued to display the same negative emotions. These cultural display rules explain the difference in expressions of the Japanese students in the experiment, as due to the cultural mandate in Japan of managing and minimizing expressions of feelings in the presence of a third party. In Japan it is culturally appropriate to hide unhappiness by smiling or embarrassment by laughing. While weeping in public is considered in Japan to be inappropriate, in Middle Eastern or Latin American cultures it is normal to express one's emotions openly and visibly.

    Using the concept of cultural display rules, Matsumoto (1990) developed a theory of the expression of emotions that incorporates Hofstede's taxonomies, particularly as they relate to individualism versus collectivism. According to the theory, because individualistic cultures encourage and reward self-expression, individuals in those cultures are free to express fully and instinctively their feelings, whether they be positive or negative. On the other hand, those in collectivistic cultures are bound by conventions of the collective good and social harmony to regulate their expression of emotion when not alone. Matsumoto also incorporates the concept of power distance:

    Large power-distance cultures endorse displays of emotion that reinforce hierarchical relations (i.e., status reminders), such as showing anger toward a low-status person or appeasing a high-status person (e.g., smiling). Small power-distance cultures embrace egalitarian values and teach the importance of treating people as equals. Thus, there is less pressure in these cultures for members to adjust displays of emotion according to the status of another person. (Remland et al., 2014)

    Large power distance cultures tend tend to be correlated with collectivism, just as small power distance cultures are correlated with individualism. As always, in such broad-stroke generalizations, caution is needed in applying these labels to individuals. While dominant cultural forces may be powerful, they may be contradicted and potentially negated by values associated with group membership, whether those be ethnic, regional, or other. It is also the case that individual personalities play a significant role in the degree to which emotions are displayed or suppressed. The patterns we've identified in nonverbal behavior should be seen as examples not as absolutes. Being aware of such potential variations can be helpful in adjusting expectations and suspending judgments.

    Eye Contact

    Eye contact, or Oculesics, serves many purposes. We use our eyes to express emotions, regulate a conversation, indicate listening behavior, show interest in others, respect, status, hostility, and aggression (Burgoon, Buller & Woodall, 1996). Patterns of eye contact vary significantly by culture. Generally, eye contact is considered a good thing in the United States. It can mean that you are interested, confident, and bold (a good thing), but people often avoid eye contact in crowded, impersonal situations such as walking down a busy street or riding a crowded bus. In France, however, someone may feel free to watch someone interesting on the street and consciously make eye contact to indicate interest. In the Middle East, direct eye contact is less common and generally less appropriate, whereas lack of eye contact in Asia is often a sign of respect and considered polite. Within the US, different ethnic groups have been found to follow different norms in the use of eye contact to regulate conversations. African-Americans maintain eye contact when speaking but avert their gaze when listening, but just the opposite is true for European Americans (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978). This distinction can lead to conflict:

    Interethnic expectancy violations exist when African Americans expect the European Americans to look them in the eyes when speaking but instead receive “non-responsiveness” or “indifference” cues. European Americans, on the other hand, may view the direct eye gaze during speaking as “confrontational” or “aggressive” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p.126).

    In both pluralistic societies and in cross-cultural encounters, being mindful of variations in this area is important. Nora Dresser's book, Multicultural Matters (2005), chronicles how Korean-American shopkeepers, who did not make eye contact with their customers, were perceived as disrespectful, something contributing to the open confrontation taking place in US urban centers between some Asians and African-Americans. In some contexts in the US, such as in urban areas among teens and young adults, looking directly at someone can be seen as a provocation, reflected in the term "mad-dogging" (Remland et al., 2015).

    people making eye contact in a conversation.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Groups may have different expectations in maintaining eye contact in conversations


    Posture is the last item in our list of kinesics. Humans can stand up straight or slouch, lean forward or backward, round or slump our shoulders, and tilt our heads. Mehrabian (1972) believed that posture communicates immediacy and power. Immediacy is the degree to which you find someone interesting and attractive. Typically, when someone from the United States finds someone attractive, they face the person when talking, hold their head up, and lean in. Whereas a reaction to someone they don’t like might have them look away and lean back. Power is the ability to influence people or events. In the United States, high-status communicators typically use relaxed postures (Burgoon et al., 1996), but in Japan, the opposite is true. Japanese display power through erect posture with feel planted firmly on the floor.


    Vocal characteristics we use to communicate nonverbal messages are called vocalics or paralanguage (with-language). Vocalics involves verbal and nonverbal aspects of speech that influence meaning, including rate, pitch, tone, volume, intensity, pausing, and even silence. 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. The voice qualities of a speaker can be as important in conveying a message as the semantic value of the words spoken. Scholars who engage in conversation analysis have shown even slight modifications in voice tone or intonation can send a message to the listener.

    One of the roles vocalizations play is to function as a backchannel or filler in conversations, a way for a listener to send messages to the speaker (Yngve, 1970). This may consist in English 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. Backchannel communication occurs across cultures, but may vary in norms and expectations, which can cause confusion or awkwardness. 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.

    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. Our cultural backgrounds tend to lead us to make assumptions about others based on paralinguistic clues. One of these clues 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. As is the case with other forms of nonverbal communication across cultures, paralinguistic behaviors vary across cultures and can lead to misunderstanding of another person's intentions or feelings. 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).


    Coming from the Latin proximus, meaning “near,” proxemics refers to communication through the use of physical distance or space. Edward Hall (1966) pioneered the study of proxemics, the perception and use of physical space, including territoriality and personal space. Territoriality is related to control. Who gets the corner office? Who sits at the head of the table and why? Personal space refers to the conversation distance, or the “bubble” of space surrounding each individual. One of the actions which can affect the course of the conversation is for one or the other of the conversants to move closer or further away.Following complaints from both Arab and US students in a North American university setting, O.M. Watson (1970) investigated the nonverbal behavior of the two groups. He found that the US students viewed the Arabs as pushy and rude, while the Arabs considered the US students to be distant and rude. He discovered that a substantial part of the problem were different conceptions of personal space, with the US students feeling the Arab students were invading their bubbles and the Arab students seeing the US students as unfriendly because they were keeping their distance. Hall (1966) developed a four-level classification of social distance. For the US, he defined intimate space, reserved for highly personal relationships, as 9 to 18 inches (23 to 45 cm), and personal distance ("arm's length") at 1.5 to 4 feet (.5 to 1.2 m), the normal spacing for conversations. Social distance he established at between 4 and 12 feet (1.2 to 3.6 m), the spacing normal in casual gathering and work environments. Public distance he defined as being 12 feet (3.6 m) or longer, used for public speaking or large gatherings. Researchers have identified particular cultures as having a preference for closer proximity and a high degree of physical contact (Aiello, 1987). Examples frequently given are Arabs, Latin Americans, and southern Europeans. Cultures who prefer further interaction distances include the USA, Northern Europe, and Australia. There are other factors besides regional culture which may affect personal distance, such as gender, age, ethnicity, or topic of conversation.

    A person sitting on a bench far away from others.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): In some cultures, people like to keep their distance
    image of two urinals very close together in a men's bathroom in Spain
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Inside a men's bathroom at a University in Madrid, Spain (CC By; Tom Grothe)


    Touch in communication interaction is called haptics, from the ancient Greek word “haptien.” Cultural norms have a strong impact on how people use and perceive touch. Touch conventions vary significantly across cultures and are dependent as well on age, gender, and relationship. In some Arab cultures, it is common for men to hold hands in particular situations. Some cultures have a taboo on touching the top of someone's head, as in patting a child, as the head is considered sacred. Another taboo, in India, the Middle East, and Africa, is the use of the left hand in certain social situations, such as eating. Cooper, Calloway-Thomas & Simonds (2007) provide a set of rules in relation to touch in Thai culture:

    • Don’t touch anyone’s head for any reason. The head is the most important part of the body. It is the seat of the soul.
    • Do not touch a female on any part of her body.
    • The feet are considered the “dirtiest” part of the body. They are used only for walking. Thus, it is an insult to rest your feet on someone else’s backrest, such as in the cinema or on a train.
    • Women must never touch a monk or his robe. Even in a bus or train, Women cannot sit next to a monk.
    • Always accept things with your right hand. The left hand is used to Wash the posterior and is therefore regarded as unclean (p. 138).

    Hall (1963) suggests that the use of proxemics and haptics merge within a culture to create what researchers now call contact and noncontact cultures. In contact cultures, people stand closer together while talking, touch more frequently, and speak in louder voices. Some examples of contact cultures are cultures in Central and South America, the Middle East, and Eastern and Mediterranean Europe. For example, Latin American cultures tend to hug more than do Northern Europeans. In noncontact cultures, people stand farther apart while talking and touch less. Some examples of noncontact cultures are Great Britain, the United States, and Japan. This difference is exemplified in a study of outdoor cafes in London, England and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Researchers found that Puerto Ricans touched each other an average of 180 times per hour whereas the British average was zero (EPA, 2002). Being aware of such norms in visiting another culture can make seemingly strange behavior understandable and help to avoid embarrassing faux-pas.

    Physical Appearance and Artifacts

    Physical appearance and artifacts profoundly influence our communication encounters. In other words, how you look conveys as much about you as what you say. Physical appearance includes attributes such as hair, clothing, body type, and personal grooming. Across cultures, people credit individuals they find physically attractive with higher levels of intelligence, persuasiveness, poise, sociability, warmth, power, and employment success than they credit to unattractive individuals (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986). Communication researchers call this tendency to make a blanket judgment of a person based on one trait the halo (positive) or horns (negative) effect. As physical attractiveness is variable across cultures, and constantly being redefined, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Artifacts are the things we possess that influence how we see ourselves and that we use to express our identity to others. They can include rings and tattoos, but may also include brand names and logos. From clothes to cars, watches, briefcases, purses, and even eyeglasses, what we choose to surround ourselves with communicates something about our sense of self. They may project gender, role or position, class or status, personality, and group membership or affiliation.

    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 kimonos 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 kimono) 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.

    Woman wearing a niqab (veil)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Woman wearing a niqab (veil)

    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.

    A woman with several tattoos.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Tattoos have become commonplace in American culture

    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.Different Shades of Black IdentityExample \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    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 African-Americans, 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).


    The study of smell in humans is called olfactics. In some cultures (in Africa and the Middle East, for example) there's a preference for standing close enough to a person in conversation to be able to detect body odor. Odor is used in such cases to categorize people according to status, power, or social class. In many cultures wearing an expensive perfume or cologne can signal status and wealth. On the other hand, the smell of sweat or strong body odor is likely to suggest manual labor and lower social status. Some smells are associated with particular ethnic groups and may lead to prejudicial treatment. The smell of curry, linked to South Asians, has been used as a basis for discrimination, such as refusing to rent apartments to Indians or Pakistanis (Jackson, 2014). Although some smells seem to be universally attractive (jasmine, lavender, roses) others may vary in how they are perceived across cultures. The smell of onions, for example, is considered unpleasant in many cultures, but the Dagon people of Mali find the smell attractive, even to the point of rubbing onions on their bodies (Neuliep, 2006).

    A person smelling a rose
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): The smell of roses seems universally positive

    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 nonverbal 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.

    Recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief in 1916
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief in 1916

    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, and 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 moot. 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).

    Contributors and Attributions

    Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication, by Robert Godwin-Jones. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC

    Intercultural Communication for the Community College, by Karen Krumrey-Fulks. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    This page titled 5.2: Types of Nonverbal Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tom Grothe.