Brenda Townsend Hall, PhD

Article Summary:

Dealing with nonverbal language in international communications.

Nonverbal Communication in International Business

Communications in international business are considered more often at the verbal level than in terms of body language and the signs and symbols that cultures use instinctively to convey messages and attitudes. Yet some claim that more than 90% of the social content of a message is contained in non-verbal cues. Clearly, if this is so, we neglect this aspect of communication at our peril.

Interpersonal non-verbal messages are present in our posture, our dress, our facial expression, our gesture, the tone and loudness of our voice, the way we use personal space, even our body odor! These aspects of our behavior are largely unconscious so we give out messages in spite of ourselves. Sometimes a verbal message takes on the non-verbal meaning. By this I mean that some polite phrases are used as formulae and have no real meaning. When we meet somebody and say, "How are you?" the non-verbal message displays our lack of interest even though the words appear to be a question. The question is now indistinguishable from other non-linguistic ways of greeting, like hand-shaking, so we are very surprised if the respondent launches into a detailed description of his or her state of health. And conversely, if we really do want to know how somebody feels, we have to exaggerate the non-verbal cues to give meaning to the question: that may involve laying a hand on the other person's shoulder, using a more emotional tone of voice and giving constant eye contact.

Non-verbal communication is also a feature of the way we present information using multiple modalities: the colors and shapes chosen for a logo, the meaning inherent in certain types of gifts, such as flowers, the soundscapes we use to reinforce advertising messages. These signs and symbols have culture-specific significance, so in localizing materials for the international marketplace we have to be sure not make cultural errors. The color orange, has overtones in northern Ireland; green is considered unlucky in some cultures; lilies, carnations, chrysanthemums may be inappropriate gifts in certain places.

The sending and receipt of non-verbal messages takes place on a subliminal level and this makes it a much more difficult aspect of international communications to master. It is very easy, for example, to misinterpret a message because we do not understand its meaning outside our culture. Eye contact in western cultures is associated with openness, engagement, sincerity. But in some cultures it is considered disrespectful. Or we might assume that a behavior from our own culture has the same meaning elsewhere. People from more tactile cultures who use a lot of touch could inadvertently appear inappropriately friendly in more reserved cultures. Having lived in France for some years and so being accustomed to greeting people with at least two kisses on the cheek, I saw a look of amazement on the face of a cousin in England, when I greeted her similarly.

Non-verbal behavior can be governed by situation. Thus people who are very formal in the office can be quite unreserved in a social situation. But they wouldn't wish to loosen up in the workplace. Another danger area is the use of irony or humor: subtle meanings might be conveyed by tone of voice but these signals could easily be missed in intercultural situations. Similarly, words might be used to preserve certain forms of politeness but the situation as a whole governs the meaning behind the words. When we seek agreement, for example. Some cultures see overt disagreement as impolite and may say they agree to preserve dignity.

So how can we deal with the non-verbal aspects of communication? The first stage is simply to become aware of the issue. Remember that we send powerful messages non-verbally but that those messages will be interpreted differently in different cultures. Next we have to become aware of our own behavior patterns. How do we feel if a long silence opens up in a conversation? How do we greet colleagues, family and friends? What do we consider appropriate dress for work? Do we sit in a stiff and formal position with our arms crossed? What facial expressions do we use? To become fully aware of our non-verbal behavior we may have to video ourselves in a group interaction. Then we have to become observant of others. Note especially if people have similar traits. Note if there are gender differences. We must try also to notice how others react to us. From there we can go on to imitate the non-verbal behavior of those we are dealing with. This might be by small steps, such as accepting silences, adjusting our personal space, dressing in a similar way. The mirroring of other people's body language is advocated in such fields as neuro-linguistic programming, so it seems that our intercultural effectiveness is likely to be enhanced if can at least go some way towards acting like our counterparts.  

Brenda Townsend Hall is a communications consultant, trainer and course designer. She offers face-to-face and distance training in the fields of interpersonal communications, business English, written communications and cross-cultural awareness. She has a distance-learning training course for teachers wishing to enter the field of business English at online at Teach Business English.

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