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Body language and various other nonverbal cues have long been recognized as
being of great importance to the facilitation of communication. There has been a
long running debate as to whether body language signals and their meanings are
culturally determined or whether such cues are innate and thus universal. The
nature versus nurture dichotomy inherent in this debate is false; one does not
preclude the other’s influence. Rather researcher’s should seek to address the
question how much of nonverbal communication is innate and how much is
culturally defined? Are there any true universal nonverbal cues or just universal
tendencies modified to suit cultural ideals and constraints? It is my proposal that of
all forms of nonverbal communication the most universal is the communication of
emotions through facial expression. Other channels of nonverbal communication
are also of great importance in many cultures. However which channels are
emphasized, what cues are considered acceptable and the symbolic meaning of the
cues may vary from culture to culture.
Ekman and Friesen (1969; and discussed in Ekman and Keltner, 1997)
undertook an important cross-cultural study to determine how easily and accurately
people from various literate Western and non-Western cultures could identify the
appropriate emotion term to match photographs they were shown. The
photographs were of Caucasian faces posed in certain facial expressions. The terms
the subjects were given to choose from were happiness, surprise, disgust, contempt,
anger, fear and sadness. The result was consistent evidence of agreement across all
cultures examined. In order to rule out the possibility that exposure to mass-media
had taught the subjects to recognize Caucasian facial expressions Ekman and Friesen
undertook a similar study among a visually isolated culture in New Guinea (Ekman,
1972). A different methodology was used; people were shown the photographs of
posed Caucasian facial expressions and were asked to make up a story about the
person and the moments leading up to that image. From these stories Ekman and
Friesen concluded that these subjects were able to identify the emotions accurately.
The one exception was that there seemed to be some confusion between surprise
and fear expressions. Similar research was undertaken by Heider and Rosch
(reported in Ekman, 1972) with the intent of disproving Ekman and Friesen.
However, the data gathered also supported Ekman and Friesen’s conclusions.
A similar experiment (Argyle, 1975) compared the perception of the emotions
of English, Italian and Japanese performers by subjects from these three countries.
The results (reported in Argyle, 1975) were as follows:
Both the English and Italian subjects could identify their own and each others
emotions but had difficulty with the Japanese. The Japanese subjects were able to
identify the emotions of the English and Italians better than those groups had been
able to judge the Japanese. However the Japanese subjects had difficulty
determining Japanese facial expressions. This would seem to indicate that the
Japanese face does not express emotion in the same manner as those of other
cultures. However, another experiment (Ekman and Keltner, 1997) demonstrated
different results. American and Japanese subjects were observed while watching
films designed to evoke fear and disgust. During part of this observation the
subjects were videotaped while watching the film alone. It was presumed that
during this time no social rules would restrict the subject’s display of emotion. No
difference existed between the American and the Japanese subjects in the display of
emotion when alone. When watching the film with an authority figure (the
researcher) present the Japanese were more likely than the Americans to hide
negative emotions with a smile.
Observation of children who were born deaf and blind show that they make
the same emotional expressions (Ekman and Keltner, 1997). There is no way that
these children could have learned this behaviour through sensory input. Similarly, a
study involving sighted babies under six months of age has showed that they react
with fear to negative faces (Segerstrale and Molnar, 1997). These infants were too
young to have learned which faces had negative connotations. It would have to be
an innate response.
Although different cultures define when and where it is acceptable to display
certain emotions (i.e. crying at a funeral may or may not be expected) and the
stimulus that triggers a certain emotion may vary from culture to culture, the facial
expression of emotions seems to be a universal. There may be an evolutionary
advantage to this form of communication. When people are communicating they
tend to mimic the faces one another make. It has been shown that making a face
associated with an emotional response actually causes the person to feel that
emotion (Ekman, 1977). This shared empathy would have aided in facilitating
group harmony and communicating states of mind.
While facial expressions may be universal (although subject to cultural rules)
the use of the rest of the body as a communicative tool is widely varied from culture
to culture. Although there seem to be some universal tendencies (Morain, 1978)
Birdwhistell’s comment that “there are probably no universal symbols of emotional
state” seems to be true (1970). Although the body is an important channel of
communication in every culture the information that the body conveys and the
manner in which it conveys it varies greatly. This is illustrated in the contrast
between Japanese and Arab nonverbal communication styles.
Japanese conversation involves a great deal of ritual and prescribed answers.
Much of the information in an encounter is transmitted on nonverbal channels. It is
important to the Japanese that emotions not be shown in public. This applies to
both negative (sorrow, anger) and positive (joy) emotions, although more strongly
to negative emotions. A poker face is considered ideal in public, in private a faint
smile is acceptable. In most situations sorrow or displeasure must not be shown, it
is preferable to mask negative feelings with a smile than display them (Morisaki and
Gudykunst, 1994). The Japanese do not look one another in the eye very much.
Instead they are taught to look at the neck. In particular they avoid looking very
much at the faces of superiors. As was shown above Japanese have difficulty
reading Japanese emotions. Because hierarchical rank is very important in Japan
people take great care to establish the correct relationship (bowing, tone of voice,
etc.). Much self-presentation is done with clothing. Almost every occupational
group has a special uniform; status within a firm is indicated by company badges.
Rules are often dictated more by the situation than by the people involved
(Benedict, 1946). Many of the rituals of Japan (i.e. tea ceremonies) place emphasis on
the employment of subtle and restrained nonverbal communication (Ibid). In
addition to the usual emphatic and illustrative gestures there are gestures called
temane that have arbitrary meanings and are used at a distance (Argyle, 1975).
Gestures may also be used when Japanese rules of face prevent the information
being transmitted verbally (such as licking the forefinger and stroking and eyebrow
to suggest someone is a liar) (Scollon and Wong-Scollon, 1994). The most common
use of posture is the use of bowing. The depth and duration of the bow vary
depending on a person’s status relative to the other individual. In public places
there is very little bodily contact, even handshakes. In crowded areas such as
subways contact is tolerated. In private there is a great deal of touching and less
privacy than in Western homes. Traditionally young people walk behind their
parents and wives walk behind their husbands.
Arabs are also very sensitive to nonverbal behaviour. They too engage in a
great deal of behaviour that is ritualized or socially determined; it is the nonverbal
cues that clarify meaning. Tradition dictates that interactants should control their
emotions and the pitch of their voice. In reality men often show powerful displays
of emotion, even going so far as to tear at their clothing and scream in public
(Hottinger, 1963). Interpersonal attitudes are conveyed almost entirely by nonverbal
cues. Because Arabs are very concerned with their standing in the eyes of others
outward appearance and honour are very important. Often little distinction is made
between status and affect; flattery, ingratiation and other displays of interpersonal
affect may be employed to manipulate others (Ibid). Peter Collett (cited in Argyle,
1975) found that Arabs tend to have a high sense of self-esteem which leads to an
expectation of praise. It also often leads to exaggeration and “keeping up
appearances.” In conversation a pair of Arabs will look into one another’s eyes
more than would two Americans or Englishmen (Argyle, 1975). It is considered
impolite not to face someone directly when engaged in conversation. Males will
routinely touch one another on the arm or hand, particularly to emphasize a point
or a joke. Upon greeting men will often hold hands loosely while going through the
verbal greeting and may kiss if they have not seen one another in some time. There
are many gestures used to convey specific meanings (i.e. making pyramid with
upward pointing thumb and fingers of one hand and shaking hand up and down
from wrist indicates someone is beautiful) (Ibid). Arab clothing conceals much of
the person from view; the clothing of a woman may leave only here eyes showing.
Tone of voice is important in indicating the real meaning of verbal utterances
(whether they are friendly, sincere, etc.), particularly because many verbal
utterances are “stereotyped and ambiguous” (Ibid, 94).
In both examples described above nonverbal input is critical to interpreting
the true meaning of the communication; the similarity seems to end there. An Arab
attempting to indicate respect by holding the gaze of a Japanese person would
offend him instead. Not only do the codes that are employed (i.e. the behaviour that
conveys meaning) vary between cultures but the information that is conferred with
these codes varies greatly as well. An Arab may indicate his emotions in a
nonverbal manner during an exchange. In the same situation a Japanese man would
be expected to contain indicators of his emotional status. With such differences
apparent it would seem difficult to argue for the existence of universals in body
No universal gesture or posture indicates the same idea everywhere.
However, if one looks beyond the apparent dissimilarity some patterns do become
clear. Each part of the bodily communication is used for the same purposes in every
culture (Knapp and Hall, 1992). Tone of voice always modifies the meaning of
utterances and communicates interpersonal attitudes (Eibl-Eibelsfeldt, 1988).
Bodily appearance always conveys information about the self - sex, age, social
status, role, etc. All cultures use nonverbal cues to transmit the same range of
information (primarily meaning and information about the self). Certain cultures
may restrict what information should be transmitted through nonverbal cues (i.e.
Japan, where nonverbal communication is expected to carry cues about status but
Another pattern that seems to appear universally is that the meaning of both
intention movements (which are biologically innate) and illustrative movements or
gestures is usually analogical (Ellen, 1977). While some signals do acquire arbitrary
meaning through historical association (such as many religious and political
symbols) most bear a metaphoric relation to that which they represent.
It has been show that the facial expression of emotion does not vary
cross-culturally. The physical expression of nonverbal cues may vary from culture
to culture as societal rules dictate what it is that we express with these cues remains
the same cross-culturally. Most nonverbal signals obey the basic principles of
semiotics (Ibid). These principles are culturally universal and show that although
the manifestation of nonverbal cues is different cross-culturally the underlying
tendency in the brain to pattern information in such a manner is the same.
Nonverbal communication is not either learned or innate. It is both; it is innate
impulse working within the restrictions set by a particular culture.
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