Nonverbal communication in cultures

Fear has Big Eyes by Robbie Grubbs, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0

The human face is extremely expressive, able to reveal countless emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, many facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures. Even if you’re known for your “poker face, ” the small movements of your facial muscles will transmit at least some of what you’re feeling to a focused observer.

Body Movements and Posture

This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, bearing, stance and subtle movements. Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up or hold their head. The way you move and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world.

If you are a leader, the way you enter a room can set the tone for the day and reinforce (or contradict!) the culture of your organization.

As a team member, your lack of interest in an important project may well be broadcast by the way you sit during a team meeting.


Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We wave, point, beckon, and use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly—expressing ourselves with gestures often without thinking. Unlike many other forms of non-verbal communication, the meaning of gestures can be very different across cultures and regions, so it’s important to be careful to avoid misinterpretation. For example, the “thumbs up” gesture can mean anything from “let him live” (ancient Rome), to “yourself” (sign language), a male person (Japan), or an extremely rude insult (some Middle Eastern and African countries).

Eye contact

Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s response.

Much like gestures, though, eye contact can also be interpreted differently in different cultures. While North American, Australian and many European cultures interpret strong eye contact as a sign of interest, sincerity and trustworthiness; sustained eye contact can be considered disrespectful (Japanese and some Latino cultures), or simply inappropriate in other cultures (eye contact between genders in Muslim cultures).


We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the messages given by the following: a firm handshake, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring pat on the back, a patronizing pat on the head or a controlling grip on your arm.

Observe yourself and others to see how and when touch is being used and what it is communicating. Remember that the acceptability of touch, and the meaning it conveys, will also vary based on relationship and from one culture to another.

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