CSMS Magazine Staff WriterNonverbal communication plays an important role in our everyday human interaction. People may not realize it is also an integral part of our culture. A smile, a handshake, and a hug are all greetings depending on which culture you are from. In the United States we usually greet each other with a handshake and a smile. My culture is Hispanic. We greet each other with a hug and kiss on the cheek. When visiting a different culture, one has to be aware of these nonverbal differences. An example of this is when my sister and I visited England a few years ago. My sister ordered two orders of fish and chips. It was noisy so she put her hand up and two fingers up. Our friends from England later told us not to do that hand gesture again because to them it means something totally different. It is the equivalent to the middle finger in the United States. We had no clue of this. The guy at the store I guess could see we were tourists, so he just ignored it. This is one of many misunderstandings that can arise from not understanding the differences in nonverbal behavior. Studying the intercultural aspects of nonverbal behavior will help me as a teacher recognize the vast differences between cultures and how to be sensitive to those differences. One way I am sensitive to other cultures is in my greeting. I do realize that not everyone will understand, especially if I just meet them. In my culture it is appropriate to hug and kiss a total stranger. I modify my greeting if it is someone from another culture. For example if there are Americans, I will usually use a handshake as a greeting. When I am not sure of the appropriate greeting for their culture, I usually just smile. I think this is why studying nonverbal communication is important. It helps me understand other cultures. This will hopefully avoid potential problems and misconceptions associated with nonverbal communication.
Thumbs up for approval, with open hand wave hello, thumbs down for disapproval. Move head up and down when meaning yes. Move head side to side when meaning no. Hold palm up and move fingers toward your body when calling someone over. Make a circle with your thumb and index finger and other fingers are erect for meaning okay.
Gestures from other Cultures
In England holding two fingers up, index and middle, is insulting. In India moving head side to side means yes. Pointing with index finger is considered impolite in the Middle East. In Korea crossing one’s legs is a social taboo. Nonverbal gestures can take different meanings depending on which culture you are from. For instance the peace sign in the United States is well known but if you turn your palm inward in England, it is offensive. A seemingly non-offensive gesture can take on a completely different meaning in another culture. ESOL students would have difficulty with understanding a new culture’s gestures. One reason is because they have not been exposed to them before and might misunderstand their meaning. One gesture might mean something else in their culture. In the United States pointing is not offensive but in China pointing at someone can be taken as a sign of rudeness. Nonverbal communication can be ambiguous because it is based on context. One has to be aware of this when interpreting behaviors. It is also important to realize that when you get to know other cultures’ nonverbal behaviors it can lead you to discover the culture’s underlying attitudes and values. Also see Role of alternative languages in our society