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Topics in Linguistic Anthropology: Nonverbal Communication

Two women holding each other's hands

In addition to speech, humans also use nonverbal communication to communicate. And we actually convey more information through nonverbal communication than we do through speech. Now, there are whole books on nonverbal communication, so this blog post cannot possibly teach you everything you need to know about nonverbal communication. So, I will focus on just a few topics.

Kinesics

There are different types of nonverbal communication. Let’s start off by looking at kinesics. Kinesics is the study of body motion and gestures. One type of body motion is facial expressions. Did you know that people use over 250,000 different facial expressions? Some facial expressions are universal, meaning they are recognized in all cultures. Some examples are the facial expressions associated with happiness, grief, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. But, facial expressions can mean different things in different contexts. For example, a smile can mean happiness, but in some contexts, a smile may be an insult.

Now let’s talk about other kinds of body movements. The meaning of many body movements depends on the culture. Here are some examples. In the United States, people point to things with a finger. But in Madagascar, people point with their lips. In the United States, shaking our head up and down means “yes” and shaking our head side to side means “no.” But in areas of India and Turkey, people say “yes” and “no” in the opposite way. And in Brazil, people wag a finger to say “no.” In Sri Lanka, if you are saying “yes” to a question, you nod your head. But if you are asked to do something, you say “yes” by moving your head slowly sideways. And in Greece, you say “yes” by nodding your head and you say “no” by jerking your head back. But in Ethiopia, jerking the head back means “yes.”

Gestures

Gestures can also have a different meaning in other cultures. For example, in the United States, making the OK sign means “okay,” but in France and Belgium, it means the other person is worthless, and in Greece and Turkey the sign is vulgar. In North America, holding your hand out in a “stop” gesture is insulting in Greece. And, in North America, crossing your fingers is the sign for luck, but in Vietnam, this gesture is obscene.

Nonverbal communication. A person in a red robe holding their palm facing outward.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is another type of body movement. In the United States, females tend to look directly at each other when they talk, but males tend to look straight ahead. But in Japan, people make less eye contact. If someone is of a lower status, they need to look down and not make eye contact as a sign of respect for the person who is of a higher status.

Body Movements and Social Status

In some cultures, body movements are affected by social status. Here’s an example. In Madagascar and Polynesia, if you are of a lower status you should not hold your head higher than someone of a higher status. So if you are near a person of higher status, you should bend your knees and lower your head to show respect for that person. In Japan, bowing is a way to show respect, and is affected by social status as well. If you already know someone, or you are socially equal, you bow 15 degrees. If you are bowing to someone who has a higher social status, you bow 30 degrees. And if you are apologizing for something, you bow 45 degrees, which shows the highest level of respect.

Proxemics

Now I’d like to talk about a kind of nonverbal communication called proxemics. Proxemics is the study of social space. For example, proxemics includes how close you are to people you are talking to. Here’s an example. In American culture, you use a different amount of personal space when talking to different people. So, you may be very close to your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse when you talk to them. But, you would stand farther apart when talking to a friend. And you would stand even farther apart when talking to a stranger in public. Other cultures use space differently. For example, in some Middle Eastern cultures, you always stand very close to the person you are talking to, even if you don’t know them.

Haptics

Now I’d like to talk about another kind of nonverbal communication, which is called haptics. Haptics has to do with communicating through touch. This includes things like shaking hands, hugging, and patting someone on the back. Each culture has rules about who can touch someone, where you can be touched, and in what situations. And, some cultures use a lot of touching and are called high-touch cultures or contact cultures, while other cultures use little touching, and are called low-touch cultures or noncontact cultures. For example, high-touch cultures include those in the Middle East, India, and Latin America. Some examples of low-touch cultures include those in northern Europe, North America, and Japan. Sometimes, social inequality plays a role in touching, too. For example, in India, if two people are social equals they can touch, but if they are not social equals, then they cannot touch. Here’s another example. In the United States, a boss may pat a worker on the back, but a worker would not pat a boss on the back because they are not socially equal. Social status can even play a role in hand-shaking. For example, in Brazil, when people who are lower class (especially women) shake hands with some who is of a higher class, they use a limp handshake.

Paralanguage

Now let’s talk about something called paralanguage. Have you ever heard the phrase, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it?” For example, you could say “I’m happy to help” with a flat voice and an angry facial expression. That would mean something different from saying “I’m happy to help” with voice inflection and a smile. This is paralanguage. Paralanguage includes voice effects, such as groaning or sighing, along with voice qualities like how loud you say something (like whispering vs. shouting) or your tone of voice, and also vocalizations, such as “ummm” or “oh!” But the meaning of paralanguage can be different in different cultures. For example, in the United States, we say “uh-huh” to mean “yes” or that we agree with something, but in Madagascar, the same sound is used to deny something.

Nonverbal communication. A person holding their hands in a heart shape, with a sunset in the background.

Chronemics

Now, I’d like to talk about chronemics, which is the cultural understanding of time. You might be wondering, how does time send a message? Here’s an example. If you are in the United States and you show up for a meeting 30 minutes late, you are sending a different message than if you arrive 10 minutes early. But the meanings of time are different in different cultures. Cultures can be divided into two groups based on how they view time–monochronic and polychronic. Monochronic cultures (called M-time cultures) see time as inflexible and these people schedule their lives. Examples of M-time cultures are the United States and northern European countries. Polychronic cultures (called P-time cultures) see time as fluid, and they don’t schedule their lives according to the clock. Examples of P-time cultures are Brazil and India.

Whistle Languages

Another type of nonverbal communication is whistled speech or whistle languages. This is when people communicate through whistling. Most of the whistled languages are found in mountainous areas or dense forests. This is because whistles carry further than shouted speech in these environments. There are about 80 languages that have a whistled version. And although whistled languages usually have a smaller vocabulary than spoken languages, there still can be a lot of words. For example, the whistled language Silbo has about 2,000 words. Want to learn more about whistle languages? Check out this blog post!

Talking Drums

In some cultures, such as those who speak tonal languages in West Africa, large drums are used to communicate. These drums are called talking drums, and they can be heard from 7 miles away, which is 12 kilometers. The person playing the talking drum uses one hand to adjust the tension in the drum, which changes its pitch, and the other hand to strike the drum with a stick. For example, in Nigeria, there is a tonal language called Yoruba that uses 3 tones. The talking drums can replicate these tones and communicate messages.

Sign Languages

Now, I’d like to talk about sign languages. Sign languages are another form of nonverbal communication, but they are not just gestures–they are complete languages. There are over 300 different sign languages in the world. The majority of the time sign languages are used by people who are Deaf/deaf/ or hard-of-hearing. But in some cases, people who can hear use sign language. For example, in Australia, many indigenous people use sign language in certain situations, like during hunting or when widows are mourning.

Learn More

Want to learn more about nonverbal communication? Check out the YouTube video, called “Gestures Around the World” at this link or view the embedded video below.

Thanks for reading!