Non-verbal Communication in Different Cultures

Non-verbal communication is communication that occurs without words which is continuous. It is body language and environmental context involved in any communication. It is not what is said with words but how it is said and expressed. There are many types of non-verbal communications like eye contact, hand movements, facial expressions, touch, gestures, etc.

Non-verbal communication is different from person to person and especially from one culture to another. Cultural background defines their non-verbal communication as many forms of non-verbal communications like signs and signals are learned behavior.

Asian child showing tongue as a teasing nonverbal cues

As there are differences in meanings of non-verbal communication, miscommunication can occur when inter-cultural people communicate. People can offend others without meaning to due to their cultural differences in non-verbal communication. Facial expressions are mostly similar in most cultures as many of them like smile and cry are innate. According to researches, six expressions are universal; they are, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise. But it might also be different like the extent to which people show these feelings, in some cultures people express openly and in some people do not.

For instance, you are a European, you are traveling to Japan and you don’t speak Japanese. You don’t have a translator or a dictionary and you can only use non-verbal communication to communicate with people. You go to a restaurant and order food by pointing at something. Similarly, you pay money and leave. The people bow to you when you are leaving the place a satisfied customer.

But there might be other instances when it doesn’t go so well because of non-verbal communication like people refusing to have eye contact or getting offended when you have eye contact with them. Nods might also mean different things causing problems like when the person nods to say “yes”, other people might understand it as a “no”. In Japan, when you nod, they can just take it as a signal that you are listening to them.
Asian used "namaste" as a greeting

Some of the nonverbal communication differences in different cultural are:

Eye Contact

Western cultures mostly consider eye contact to be a good gesture. It shows attentiveness, confidence and honesty. Other cultures such as Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Native American do not take it as a good expression. It is taken as a rude and offensive expression. Unlike in Western cultures taking it as respectful, other do not consider it that way. In Eastern cultures women should especially not have eye contact with men as it shows power or sexual interest. In some cultures, whereas, gazes are taken as a way of expression. Staring is taken as rude in most cultures.


Gestures such as thumbs up can be interpreted differently in different cultures. It is taken as “Okay” sign in many cultures whereas is taken as a vulgarism in others like Latin American cultures and in Japan some even take it as money. Some cultures take snapping fingers to get the attention of a waiter as alright whereas some take it as disrespect and very offensive. Showing feet is taken as offensive in some Middle Eastern cultures. Some cultures take pointing fingers as insulting too. In Polynesia, people stick out their tongue to greet people which is taken as a sign of mockery in most of other cultures.


Touches are taken as rudeness in most cultures. Shaking hands is considered to be acceptable in many. Similarly, acceptability of kissing, hugs, and many other touches are different in different cultures. People in Asia are more conservative in these types of non-verbal communication. Patting head or shoulder also has different meanings in different cultures. In some Asian cultures patting children’s head is very bad signal as head is taken to be sacred. Middle Eastern countries take touch between people from opposite genders is taken as bad character. Where and how you are touched or touch changes the meaning of touch. So, you must be careful when you visit a new place.

Touch as a form of non-verbal communication


Appearance is another form of non-verbal communication. People are judged from their appearance. Racial differences as well as differences in clothing tell so much about any individual. Grooming yourself to look good is taken as an important aspect of personality in most cultures. But, what is considered to be a good appearance is different again in different cultures. Modesty is also measured from appearance.

Body Movement and Posture

People receive information or message from body movements. It shows how people feel or think about you. If a person does not face you while talking to you can mean that the person is nervous or shy. It might also mean that the person doesn’t like to talk to you. Other body movements like coming to sit near or far can also show confidence, power or trying to control the environment.

Postures like sitting straight or slouched also show the mental condition of the person. Hands in pocket also shows disrespect in different cultures. For example, sitting with crossed legs is considered offensive in Ghana and Turkey.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions helps in communication

Face shows feelings, attitudes and emotions. The degree of facial expressions are determined by cultures. People from United States show emotions more than their Asian counterparts. Facial expressions are shown to be similar all over the world, but people from different cultures do not show it in public. The meanings of these are commonly acknowledged everywhere. Too much expression is taken to be shallow in some places whereas in some it is taken as being weak.


How we talk also constitutes of what we communicate. For example, vocal tones, volume, rhythm, pitch, etc. speak more than what words express. Asian people control themselves from shouting as they are taught not to from childhood. They are known as vocal qualifiers. Vocal characterizations like crying, whining, yelling, etc. change the meaning of the message. Giggling is taken as a bad gesture in some cultures. Many other emotions are shown by vocal differences while all of them are included in paralanguage.

Physical Space (Proxemics)

People from different cultures have different tolerance for physical distance between people. In Middle Eastern culture people like to go near to others to talk while in others people might get afraid if anybody does so. Even Europeans and Americans do not have that much acceptance on the breach of physical distance and less acceptance for it among Asians. People have specific personal space which they do not want intruded. In some cultures, even close physical contact between strangers is acceptable.

[Related Reading: Why Non-Verbal Communication is Important?]