6 Chapter 6 – Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication, More than “Body Language”

“Same, same, but different.”

~A Cambodian saying often adorning t-shirts on tourist

Chapter Overview:

Rochester Diversity Council photo, used with permission

Often called “body language,” nonverbal communication is given less attention and thought than verbal communication. However, nonverbal communication is essential to begin understanding intercultural settings and interactions; it involves much more than the cultural meaning placed upon how we use our bodies. Nonverbal communication includes everything that is not in a grammatical structure, i.e., words, written or spoken or signed (American Sign Language is considered verbal). Nonverbal communication is a process of generating meaning using cultural symbolic gestures, behavior, and norms other than words. Remember, though, do not think of […nonverbal communication as the opposite of or separate from verbal communication; it is more accurate to view them as operating side by side—as part of the same system” (Communication, 2016, p. 165).

In this chapter, four sections examine nonverbal communication based on the University of Minnesota open textbook, Communication in the Real World: Principles and Functions of Nonverbal Communication; Types of Nonverbal Communication; Nonverbal Communication Competence; and Nonverbal Communication in Context. Additionally, this chapter develops intercultural examples from the Cultural Atlas with written permission. Further examples include videos and other resources. This chapter offers many opportunities for further reflection, which can be helpful on course assignments and think piece/essay prompts.

Before Diving, Ponder whether it is “Weird” or just “Different?”

This course asks students to explore “Culture in your Backyard.” We ask students in this class to step away from their personal, comfortable “bubble” and seek new ideas and experiences related to other cultures. Many students reported at the start of the class that they felt nervous about potentially offending others as they explored new cultures. This fear, though certainly valid, might prevent one from examining new ideas and trying new and unfamiliar cultural experiences. We recognize this fear. Fear of other cultures is based on one’s perception of a situation. Applying the information learned in this chapter, the previous chapter on verbal communication, and the chapter on perception will help us understand how the process of selection, organization, and interpretation is also the process through which we encode and decode messages. Both processes build upon symbols. What is new, different, and perhaps foreign to someone of one culture might be, consciously or unconsciously, familiar and useful to a classmate of another culture. What is saliant, or culturally prominent and important for a member and their identity within a culture, i.e., the importance an individual of one culture ascribes their cultural backgrounds, practices, and language, both verbal and nonverbal as compared to other cultures. In a different respect, cultural salience may also refer to one’s cultural ideas, norms, symbols, and practices as “sticking out” or “attracting attention” in an inter- or multicultural context. One example is that of the “loud American.” Aware of this stereotype, many Americans try to “tone down” this view of Americans and their cultural norms when traveling or living in different cultures.

One might not be aware of specific cultural cues when traveling due to the overwhelming amount of ” new ” stimuli – weary travelers often remark how exhausting it is to have so many new experiences in one day. Through travel and exploring new cultural sites, an extended visit to another culture, and even living for a time in a culture unfamiliar to us, we better appreciate how someone new to a country or culture, such as an immigrant or long-term foreign exchange student or worker, might feel. When someone from another country or culture moves to the United States, they might be asked, to the point of exhaustion, “What do you miss about your country?” or “What is new to you in the United States?” 

As foreign travelers, my husband, Mark, and I recall how fun it was to use new currency – doing the mental math to convert dollars to Euros, dollars to Danish Krone, dollars to Cambodian riels, or dollars to pesos. While exploring several countries during our stay in Denmark, Lori, when making a purchase, would show money (and trust) to the clerk, ensuring that the purchase was covered and that she received her proper change. However, my husband gained language skills and thrived as a currency converter. I will explore later how “making change” in another country’s currency with an unfamiliar language is one stimulus that may lead to culture shock.

Understand that communication is also contextual – what we see as “normal” challenges us when we travel or meet others from different regions or countries. Context includes both physical contexts and psychological contexts. “Physical context includes the environmental factors in a communication encounter. The size, layout, temperature, and lighting of a space influence our communication. Imagine different physical contexts in which job interviews occur and how that may affect your communication (Communication in the Real World, 2016). When living in Cambodia, I heard new and unfamiliar chanting, often much louder than expected. While teaching at the University of Phnom Phen, the Cambodian college students would share with Lori, “Well, we cannot have much of a discussion this week, it is Wedding Season, and the reception center is next door!” Traditional Khmer weddings often include time spent with designated monks or wedding specialists – many of whom were not unfamiliar with a microphone and large outdoor speakers. A video in the ritual section shares the wedding perception of an American of Cambodian ancestry.

“Psychological context includes the mental and emotional factors in a communication encounter. Stress, anxiety, and emotions are just some examples of psychological influences that can affect our communication” (Communication in the Real World, 2016). While living in Cambodia, worrying about aging parents, the dog, and even whether or not the water pipes would freeze back in Minnesota provided stress that became exasperating. Likewise, more deeply, immigrants or refugees from a graphical region or country describe life as having a foot in two distinct emotional “neighborhoods.” First are the emotional struggles of those who left their homes and families due to war, violence, drought, environmental hazards, or political unrest. Second, immigrants and refugees miss their former home and culture while simultaneously living with the stress of living in another culture. Cultivating one’s awareness of the contextual elements others experience can help develop empathy and intercultural communication competence.

We took students to Cambodia and reminded them to reserve the word “weird” and to think of the artifacts as “different” instead. In Minnesota, spiritual artifacts seem to belong in religious-based buildings or personal dwellings. Like many Latin American countries, we encountered religious artifacts in bus stations, stores, doctor’s offices, schools, churches, and personal homes in Guatemala and Mexico.

Traveling in Mexico, Lori feels like she “stands out.” Blue eyes, blonde hair, and freckles distinguish Lori from others in the photos at the bus station. From one’s body itself to artifacts such as clothing and masks, Lori just looks different. Other artifacts, such as wearing a mask (or not), make one “stand out.” Our posture, mannerisms, hesitancy to proceed, facial expressions of shock or acceptance when seeing the bathroom in the bus station, and deciding to “just go” or “hold it” all share messages you and others pick up on. Lillyam, Colombian and American, feels like she stands out when speaking Spanish. Why? Lilyam’s accent is Colombian, not Mexican, so Mexicans perceive her as different – one’s accent is also an area of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is HOW one communicates, not the “what” that language, or verbal communication, conveys. Beatrice, our friend who lives in Mexico, did not notice the “unique” placement of the Virgin Mary at the entrance of the bus station. Lori and Lillyam, meanwhile, take many photos, as noted here!

This chapter highlights communication theory within an intercultural context to understand better the vast amount of communication meaning that comes from symbol use that is not grammatical. We challenge students to explore what is “different” or “unique” about a given culture yet, in doing so, also to note the similarities. In preparing to share information for this chapter, we found this video to help ground the notion that life is often the same yet different (not just weird):



Section One: Definition, Principles, and Functions of Nonverbal Communication

Section One Learning Objectives

  1. Define nonverbal communication.
  2. Compare and contrast verbal communication and nonverbal communication.
  3. Discuss the principles of nonverbal communication.
  4. Provide examples of the functions of nonverbal communication, including helping express identity.

Definitions of Nonverbal Communication

Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) further define nonverbal communication:

…[N]onverbal communication involves all those nonverbal stimuli in a communication setting that are generated by both the source and his or her use of the environment and that have potential message value for the source and/or receiver. It is not by chance that our definition is somewhat lengthy. We wanted to offer a definition that would not only establish the boundaries of nonverbal communication but also reflect how the process actually functions. Part of that functioning involves (1) intentional and unintentional messages and (2) the reciprocal relationship between verbal and nonverbal messages (p. 297).

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Students in an intercultural communication class frequently hope to gain a checklist of what to do or not do when in a new country. As there are more countries to write about than time in a semester, that goal often must be narrowed. The intercultural communication interview assignment helps students to narrow focus upon cultures they are most interested in making such a “checklist.” Nonverbal communication is both intentional and unintentional. Think about how one mindfully adorns oneself– jewelry, book bags, even cars. These messages are often intentional, but the effect, such as wearing a jacket to an event with a logo or image that might be offensive to others, could be unintentional but perceived as intentional. Even one’s body might “unknowingly” or “unintentionally” communicate, e.g., generalizations about obese or anorexic individuals. The encoding and decoding of nonverbal communication are complex processes and show the power of nonverbal communication to impact the perception process. The Cultural Atlas offers students, travelers, business people, health care workers, educators, and others an opportunity to see many nonverbal cultural tendencies in various countries. As with the previous chapter on verbal communication, students studying nonverbal communication within an intercultural communication context use the Cultural Atlas as a resource.

Communication in the Real World (2016) explains:

[Remember] … the sensory route on which a message travels. Oral communication only relies on one channel, because spoken language is transmitted through sound and picked up by our ears. Nonverbal communication, on the other hand, can be taken in by all five of our senses. Since most of our communication relies on visual and auditory channels, those will be the focus of this chapter. But we can also receive messages and generate meaning through touch, taste, and smell….To further define nonverbal communication, we need to distinguish between vocal and verbal aspects of communication. Verbal and nonverbal communication include both vocal and nonvocal elements. Table 4.1 below shows the relationship among vocal, nonvocal, verbal, and nonverbal aspects of communication. A vocal element of verbal communication is spoken words—for example, “Come back here.” A vocal element of nonverbal communication is paralanguage which is the vocalized but not verbal part of a spoken message, such as speaking rate, volume, and pitch. Nonvocal elements of verbal communication include the use of unspoken symbols to convey meaning. Writing and American Sign Language (ASL) are nonvocal examples of verbal communication and are not considered nonverbal communication. Nonvocal elements of nonverbal communication include body language such as gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and smells. Gestures are nonvocal and nonverbal since most of them do not refer to a specific word like a written or assigned symbol does.

Table 4.1 Vocal and Nonvocal Elements of Communication

Verbal Communication Nonverbal Communication
Vocal Spoken words Paralanguage (pitch, volume, speaking rate, etc.)
Nonvocal Writing, sign language Body language (gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, taste, smell etc.)

Principles of Nonverbal Communication

Robert Jersek (2022) shares:

Nonverbal communication can take many different forms and can vary significantly in its manifestations and usage across cultures. Its relation to verbal communication is complex. Verbal language is based on abstract symbols, arbitrarily designated to represent objects or concepts. There’s no inherent, logical connection between “cat” or (or the German Katze or Chinese猫) and the feline animal. We learn the significance of the symbols over time. In contrast, much of nonverbal communication involves signs or signals that are natural and often involuntary. Smiling or frowning, for example, are not learned behaviors but naturally occurring human actions. This is not the case for all nonverbal communication; gestures for greetings or insults, for example, are symbolic and cultural. Verbal language can be analyzed and described by a set of rules. For nonverbal communication there are unwritten rules and conventions but no formal grammar or syntax. The rules for nonverbal communication are learned informally through immersive socialization.

Nonverbal Communication Conveys Important Interpersonal and Emotional Messages

Communication in the Real World (2016) further explains:

You’ve probably heard that more meaning is generated from nonverbal communication than from verbal. Some studies have claimed that 90 percent of our meaning is derived from nonverbal signals, but more recent and reliable findings claim that it is closer to 65 percent (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006). We may rely more on nonverbal signals in situations where verbal and nonverbal messages conflict and in situations where emotional or relational communication is taking place (Hargie, 2011). For example, when someone asks a question and we’re not sure about the “angle” they are taking, we may hone in on nonverbal cues to fill in the meaning. [Also], …the question “What are you doing tonight?” could mean any number of things, but we could rely on posture, tone of voice, and eye contact to see if the person is just curious, suspicious, or hinting that they would like company for the evening. We also put more weight on nonverbal communication when determining a person’s credibility. For example, if a classmate delivers a speech in class and her verbal content seems well-researched and unbiased, but her nonverbal communication is poor (her voice is monotone, she avoids eye contact, she fidgets), she will likely not be viewed as credible. Conversely, in some situations, verbal communication might carry more meaning than nonverbal. In interactions where information exchange is the focus, at a briefing at work, for example, verbal communication likely accounts for much more of the meaning generated. Despite this exception, a key principle of nonverbal communication is that it often takes on more meaning in interpersonal and/or emotional exchanges.

Nonverbal Communication Is More Involuntary than Verbal

One cannot underestimate the impact of involuntary nonverbal communication. Imagine traveling to a new culture and encountering different foods or even bathrooms (“bidets,” a hose that releases a spout of water to cleanse oneself rather than wiping with toilet paper, are common in Cambodia, Argentina, Venezuela, Portugal, Italy, Japan, are but a few. Also, one might find new scents fragrant or pungent (sharp, stinging, or even malodorous) based on cultural familiarity – fragrant(familiar) or pungent (unfamiliar and sometimes too intense and even stinging). For example, a grad-school roommate from Sri Lanka applied a liquid scent using sandalwood or Agarwood that was curious and unfamiliar from a different cultural perspective. However, there are instances in which we verbally communicate involuntarily. Communication in the Real World (2016) put it this way:

There are some instances in which we verbally communicate involuntarily. These types of exclamations are often verbal responses to a surprising stimulus. For example, we say “owww!” when we stub our toe or scream “stop!” when we see someone heading toward danger. Involuntary nonverbal signals are much more common, and although most nonverbal communication isn’t completely involuntary, it is more below our consciousness than verbal communication and therefore more difficult to control.

The involuntary nature of much nonverbal communication makes it more difficult to control or “fake.” For example, although you can consciously smile a little and shake hands with someone when you first see them, it’s difficult to fake that you’re “happy” to meet someone. Nonverbal communication leaks out in ways that expose our underlying thoughts or feelings. Spokespeople, lawyers, or other public representatives who are the “face” of a politician, celebrity, corporation, or organization must learn to control their facial expressions and other nonverbal communication so they can effectively convey the message of their employer or client without having their personal thoughts and feelings leak through. Poker players, therapists, police officers, doctors, teachers, and actors are also in professions that often require them to have more awareness of and control over their nonverbal communication.

Have you ever tried to conceal your surprise, suppress your anger, or act joyful even when you weren’t? Most people whose careers don’t involve conscious manipulation of nonverbal signals find it difficult to control or suppress them. While we can consciously decide to stop sending verbal messages, our nonverbal communication always has the potential of generating meaning for another person. The teenager who decides to shut out his dad and not communicate with him still sends a message with his “blank” stare (still a facial expression) and lack of movement (still a gesture). In this sense, nonverbal communication is “irrepressible” (Andersen, 1999).

Nonverbal Communication Is More Ambiguous

Thinking about how many different meanings one can take from a smile,  the ambiguous nature of nonverbal symbol use. Communication in Real World (2016) notes:

In [Chapter 5] we learn that the symbolic and abstract nature of language can lead to misunderstandings, but nonverbal communication is even more ambiguous. As with verbal communication, most of our nonverbal signals can be linked to multiple meanings, but unlike words, many nonverbal signals do not have any one specific meaning. If you’ve ever had someone wink at you and didn’t know why, you’ve probably experienced this uncertainty. Did they wink to express their affection for you, their pleasure with something you just did, or because you share some inside knowledge or joke?

Just as we look at context clues in a sentence or paragraph to derive meaning from a particular word, we can look for context clues in various sources of information like the physical environment, other nonverbal signals, or verbal communication to make sense of a particular nonverbal cue. Unlike verbal communication, however, nonverbal communication doesn’t have explicit rules of grammar that bring structure, order, and fu;;y agreed-on patterns of usage. Instead, we implicitly learn norms of nonverbal communication, which leads to greater variance. In general, we exhibit more idiosyncrasies in our usage of nonverbal communication than we do with verbal communication, which also increases the ambiguity of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication Is More Credible

When experiencing different cultures, one often finds barriers. While many might find translation devices or friends who speak the unfamilar language, if you don’t understand the language, you will most likely rely solely on nonverbal communication in this new culture. Many times, even in our culture or co-culture, we see nonverbal communication as being more likely to “tell us the truth of the situation.” Communication in the Real World (2016) shares:

Although we can rely on verbal communication to fill in the blanks sometimes left by nonverbal expressions, we often put more trust into what people do over what they say. This is especially true in times of stress or danger when our behaviors become more instinctual and we rely on older systems of thinking and acting that evolved before our ability to speak and write (Andersen, 1999). This innateness creates intuitive feelings about the genuineness of nonverbal communication, and this genuineness relates back to our earlier discussion about the sometimes involuntary and often subconscious nature of nonverbal communication. An example of the innateness of nonverbal signals can be found in children who have been blind since birth but still exhibit the same facial expressions as other children. In short, the involuntary or subconscious nature of nonverbal communication makes it less easy to fake, which makes it seem more honest and credible.

Nonverbal Communication Conveys Meaning

Robert Jersek (2022) explains the ways nonverbal communication conveys meaning:

Often nonverbal communication accompanies speech. In such cases, the relationship between the two can vary. Body language can reinforce or emphasize the verbal message – smiling, for example, while complimenting someone. Gestures can also substitute for speech – nodding or shaking the head for yes or no. On occasion, nonverbal gestures might repeat verbal messages, as in giving directions, through pointing to the way to go. Sometimes, a person’s nonverbal message might contradict what is said. A person appearing depressed might respond “Nothing, I’m fine,” in response to the question “What’s the matter?”, but the body language may send a very different signal. In such situations, the nonverbal action is likely to be perceived as the authentic message, not the verbal word response. Nonverbal communication is usually seen as more honest and revealing because it is often instinctive and unconscious. [In fact, nonverbal commuication might even replace (or subsittute for) nonverbal communciation such as nodding one’s head rather than stating yes or no].

Students are usually surprised to learn how important nonverbal behavior is in conveying messages during conversations. The common perception is that what we are mostly paying attention to are the words being said, and we tend to be unaware of the many other factors that can impact the nature of a verbal interaction. The important role that nonverbals play in communicating across cultures is demonstrated in the fact that the study of intercultural communication originated with investigations into the “silent language” and “hidden dimensions” of time and space in communication (titles of landmark books by Edward Hall, 1959, 1966).

Communication in the Real World (2016) further describes how nonverbal communication gives meaning:

Nonverbal communication conveys meaning by reinforcing, substituting for, or contradicting verbal communication. As we’ve already learned, verbal and nonverbal communication are two parts of the same system that often work side by side, helping us generate meaning. In terms of reinforcing verbal communication, gestures can help describe a space or shape that another person is unfamiliar with in ways that words alone cannot. Gestures also reinforce basic meaning—for example, pointing to the door when you tell someone to leave. Facial expressions reinforce the emotional states we convey through verbal communication. For example, smiling while telling a funny story better conveys your emotions (Hargie, 2011). Vocal variation can help us emphasize a particular part of a message, which helps reinforce a word or sentence’s meaning. For example, saying “How was your weekend?” conveys a different meaning than “How was your weekend?”

Nonverbal communication can substitute for verbal communication in a variety of ways. Nonverbal communication can convey much meaning when verbal communication isn’t effective because of language barriers. Language barriers are present when a person hasn’t yet learned to speak or loses the ability to speak. For example, babies who have not yet developed language skills make facial expressions, at a few months old, that are similar to those of adults and therefore can generate meaning (Oster, Hegley, & Nagel, 1992). People who have developed language skills but can’t use them because they have temporarily or permanently lost them or because they are using incompatible language codes, like in some cross-cultural encounters, can still communicate nonverbally. Although it’s always a good idea to learn some of the local language when you travel, gestures such as pointing or demonstrating the size or shape of something may suffice in basic interactions.

Nonverbal communication is also useful in a quiet situation where verbal communication would be disturbing; for example, you may use a gesture to signal to a friend that you’re ready to leave the library. Crowded or loud places can also impede verbal communication and lead people to rely more on nonverbal messages. Getting a server or bartender’s attention with a hand gesture is definitely more polite than yelling, “Hey you!” Finally, there are just times when we know it’s better not to say something aloud. If you want to point out a person’s unusual outfit or signal to a friend that you think his or her date is a loser, you’re probably more likely to do that nonverbally.

Last, nonverbal communication can convey meaning by contradicting verbal communication. As we learned earlier, we often perceive nonverbal communication to be more credible than verbal communication. This is especially true when we receive mixed messages or messages in which verbal and nonverbal signals contradict each other. For example, a person may say, “You can’t do anything right!” in a mean tone but follow that up with a wink, which could indicate the person is teasing or joking. Mixed messages lead to uncertainty and confusion on the part of receivers, which leads us to look for more information to try to determine which message is more credible. If we are unable to resolve the discrepancy, we are likely to react negatively and potentially withdraw from the interaction (Hargie, 2011). Persistent mixed messages can lead to relational distress and hurt a person’s credibility in professional settings.

Nonverbal Communication Influences Others

Communication in the Real World (2016) notes that nonverbal communication’s influence on our interactions with others can be manipulative and supportive. While traveling, Lori was in the Guatemala City airport. She saw a young woman in her early 20s sitting alone at the table next to Lori, crying. Lori was worried. Seeing the seemingly distressed woman cry and sitting alone influenced Lori to approach the young woman. Lori asked, “I see you are crying, do you need some help?” The woman replied that she could not get her European credit card to work online with the US visa payment system. She explained to Lori that she was from Amsterdam, traveling alone, and had a layover in Texas. New to her was that the United States was now charging a transfer fee for any “foreign transient” traveling through US airports. The fee was minimal. It checked out on the US State Department website. Therefore, Lori asked, “How can I help pay for it?” Soon Lori was typing her credit card number into the woman’s laptop – done. In seconds, the transfer fee was paid, and the interaction ended with a cheer from both. A month later, Lori and Mark’s credit card company called Lori to ask if she had spent several thousand dollars on items on that same card. You got it – Lori was scammed (Lori wants to think an evil sibling found a trace of their card number, not an intentional scam, by the way). Nonverbal communication seems universal – tears and smiles can influence anyone, anywhere. Communication in the Real World (2016) shares:

Nonverbal communication can be used to influence people in a variety of ways, but the most common way is through deception. Deception is typically thought of as the intentional act of altering information to influence another person, which means that it extends beyond lying to include concealing, omitting, or exaggerating information. While verbal communication is to blame for the content of the deception, nonverbal communication partners with the language through deceptive acts to be more convincing. Since most of us intuitively believe that nonverbal communication is more credible than verbal communication, we often intentionally try to control our nonverbal communication when we are engaging in deception. Likewise, we try to evaluate other people’s nonverbal communication to determine the veracity of their messages. Students initially seem surprised when we discuss the prevalence of deception, but their surprise diminishes once they realize that deception isn’t always malevolent, mean, or hurtful. Deception obviously has negative connotations, but people engage in deception for many reasons, including to excuse our own mistakes, to be polite to others, or to influence others’ behaviors or perceptions.

The fact that deception served an important evolutionary purpose helps explain its prevalence among humans today. Species that are capable of deception have a higher survival rate. Other animals engage in nonverbal deception that helps them attract mates, hide from predators, and trap prey (Andersen, 1999). To put it bluntly, the better at deception a creature is, the more likely it is to survive. So, over time, the humans that were better liars were the ones that got their genes passed on. But the fact that lying played a part in our survival as a species doesn’t give us a license to lie.

Aside from deception, we can use nonverbal communication to “take the edge off” a critical or unpleasant message in an attempt to influence the reaction of the other person. We can also use eye contact and proximity to get someone to move or leave an area. For example, hungry diners waiting to snag a first-come-first-serve table in a crowded restaurant send messages to the people who have already eaten and paid that it’s time to go. People on competition reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother play what they’ve come to term a “social game.” The social aspects of the game involve the manipulation of verbal and nonverbal cues to send strategic messages about oneself in an attempt to influence others. Nonverbal cues such as length of conversational turn, volume, posture, touch, eye contact, and choices of clothing and accessories can become part of a player’s social game strategy. Although reality television isn’t a reflection of real life, people still engage in competition and strategically change their communication to influence others, making it important to be aware of how we nonverbally influence others and how they may try to influence us.

Nonverbal Communication Regulates Conversational Flow

Conversation flow varies from culture to culture and even within a culture. From a nonverbal perspective, the speed of talk, the length of a pause, the sharpness of a word, and the raise of an eyebrow add to language phrases used to communicate, “I am speaking now, not you” or, on the other hand, “I am done, now it is your turn.” This regulation is often called “punctuation” within communication studies. Communication in the Real World (2016) explores this topic:

Conversational interaction has been likened to a dance, where each person has to make moves and take turns without stepping on the other’s toes. Nonverbal communication helps us regulate our conversations so we don’t end up constantly interrupting each other or waiting in awkward silences between speaker turns. Pitch, which is a part of vocalics, helps us cue others into our conversational intentions. A rising pitch typically indicates a question and a falling pitch indicates the end of a thought or the end of a conversational turn. We can also use a falling pitch to indicate closure, which can be very useful at the end of a speech to signal to the audience that you are finished, which cues the applause and prevents an awkward silence that the speaker ends up filling with “That’s it” or “Thank you.” We also signal our turn is coming to an end by stopping hand gestures and shifting our eye contact to the person who we think will speak next (Hargie, 2011). Conversely, we can “hold the floor” with nonverbal signals even when we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to say next. Repeating a hand gesture or using one or more verbal fillers can extend our turn even though we are not verbally communicating at the moment.

Nonverbal Communication Affects Relationships

One of the most confusing areas of nonverbal intercultural experiences is, for example, “What did that hug REALLY mean?” We might wonder what that tap on the shoulder means. In general, people in regions of the United States just do not touch each other. “Minnesota nice” folks like me tend to stop and say, “Hi” or give another driver the “farmer wave” using the raising of the index finger. We found that folks walk by even faster in Denmark when we waved toward them or said, “Hello.” That said, New York or Chicago folks communicate differently (often averting their eyes) than one strolling on a rural, small-town Minnesota sidewalk (if there is a sidewalk). Communication in the Real World (2016) expands on this notion:

To successfully relate to other people, we must possess some skill at encoding and decoding nonverbal communication. The nonverbal messages we send and receive influence our relationships in positive and negative ways and can work to bring people together or push them apart. Nonverbal communication in the form of tie signs, immediacy behaviors, and expressions of emotion are just three of many examples that illustrate how nonverbal communication affects our relationships.

Tie signs are nonverbal cues that communicate intimacy and signal the connection between two people. These relational indicators can be objects such as wedding rings or tattoos that are symbolic of another person or the relationship, actions such as sharing the same drinking glass, or touch behaviors such as hand-holding (Afifi & Johnson, 2005). Touch behaviors are the most frequently studied tie signs and can communicate much about a relationship based on the area being touched, the length of time, and the intensity of the touch. Kisses and hugs, for example, are considered tie signs, but a kiss on the cheek is different from a kiss on the mouth and a full embrace is different from a half embrace. If you consider yourself a “people watcher,” take note of the various tie signs you see people use and what they might say about the relationship.

Immediacy behaviors play a central role in bringing people together and have been identified by some scholars as the most important function of nonverbal communication (Andersen & Andersen, 2005). Immediacy behaviors are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that lessen real or perceived physical and psychological distance between communicators and include things like smiling, nodding, making eye contact, and occasionally engaging in social, polite, or professional touch (Comadena, Hunt, & Simonds, 2007). Immediacy behaviors are a good way of creating rapport, or a friendly and positive connection between people. Skilled nonverbal communicators are more likely to be able to create rapport with others due to attention-getting expressiveness, warm initial greetings, and an ability to get “in tune” with others, which conveys empathy (Riggio, 1992). These skills are important to help initiate and maintain relationships.

While verbal communication is our primary tool for solving problems and providing detailed instructions, nonverbal communication is our primary tool for communicating emotions. This makes sense when we remember that nonverbal communication emerged before verbal communication and was the channel through which we expressed anger, fear, and love for thousands of years of human history (Andersen, 1999). Touch and facial expressions are two primary ways we express emotions nonverbally. Love is a primary emotion that we express nonverbally and that forms the basis of our close relationships. Although no single facial expression for love has been identified, it is expressed through prolonged eye contact, close interpersonal distances, increased touch, and increased time spent together, among other things. Given many people’s limited emotional vocabulary, nonverbal expressions of emotion are central to our relationships.

Nonverbal Communication Expresses Our Identities

The free, Open Education Resource, Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016), explains how nonverbal communication and personal identities are related:

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Nonverbal communication expresses who we are. Our identities (the groups to which we belong, our cultures, our hobbies and interests, etc.) are conveyed nonverbally through the way we set up our living and working spaces, the clothes we wear, the way we carry ourselves, and the accents and tones of our voices. Our physical bodies give others impressions about who we are, and some of these features are more under our control than others. Height, for example, has been shown to influence how people are treated and perceived in various contexts. Our level of attractiveness also influences our identities and how people perceive us.

Although we can temporarily alter our height or looks—for example, with different shoes or different color contact lenses—we can only permanently alter these features using more invasive and costly measures such as cosmetic surgery. We have more control over some other aspects of nonverbal communication in terms of how we communicate our identities. For example, the way we carry and present ourselves through posture, eye contact, and tone of voice can be altered to present ourselves as warm or distant depending on the context (pp.174-175).

Today, one might physically alter one’s body to match their identity better. For example, transgender individuals have more legal and medical options (medical options to fit their sexual identity), although not all medical insurance policies, clinic locations, or states honor the rights to do so. Indeed, some college students who identify as transgender have reported problems filling out forms for college dormitories, financial aid, and even when seeking medical assistance (Seelman, 2016).

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

Aside from our physical body, artifacts, which are the objects and possessions that surround us also communicate our identities. Examples of artifacts include our clothes, jewelry, and space decorations. In all the previous examples, implicit norms or explicit rules can affect how we nonverbally present ourselves. For example, in a particular workplace it may be a norm (implicit) for people in management positions to dress casually, or it may be a rule (explicit) that different levels of employees wear different uniforms or follow particular dress codes. We can also use nonverbal communication to express identity characteristics that do not match up with who we actually think we are. Through changes to nonverbal signals, a capable person can  appear helpless, a guilty person can try to appear innocent, or an uninformed person appear credible (Communication, 2016, pp.174-175).

Before we go further, let us overview and outline the different types of nonverbal communication. Along the way, we will explore how cultural difference impacts the use and interpretation of nonverbal messages.

Section Two: Types of Nonverbal Communication

Section Two Learning Objectives

  1. Define kinesics.
  2. Define haptics.
  3. Define vocalics.
  4. Define proxemics.
  5. Define chronemics.
  6. Provide examples of types of nonverbal communication that fall under these categories.
  7. Discuss how personal presentation and environment provide nonverbal cues.

Just as verbal language is categorized, nonverbal communication has different types. As we learn about each type of nonverbal signal, remember that nonverbals often work together, combining to repeat, modify, or contradict the verbal message.

Kinesics (Body Movements)

The word kinesics comes from the root word kinesis, which means “movement,” and refers to the study of hand, arm, body, and face movements. Specifically, this section will outline the use of rituals, gestures, head movements and posture, eye contact, and facial expressions as nonverbal communication.

Robert Jersek (2022) explains Rituals:

There are a number of human interactions which occur largely without the use of language or in which language plays a clearly secondary role. That’s the case in rituals, a clearly defined set of actions performed on particular occasions and having symbolic significance. Greetings and departures, for example, have rituals that are largely nonverbal, such as shaking hands or waving. These tend to vary across cultures. In Japan, for example, it is common to bow when greeting someone, with the nature of the bow (how deep and how long) being determined by the nature of the occasion and social connection of the persons involved. In some cultures, kissing on the cheek is the usual greeting, although how many times the kisses are exchanged and which sexes are included can vary. In other parts of the world there may be hugs and kisses, depending on the context and relationship. In Arab countries it is common to bow and touch the forehead and chest (the salaam) when meeting someone. The Wai is used in Thailand and in other Asian cultures, consisting of a bow with the palms pressed together. In other cultures, people rub noses, such as in the hongi, a traditional greeting of the Maori people in New Zealand. Knowledge of such rituals can be helpful in avoiding awkwardness in first encounters.


Gestures are “a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning” (Oxford Dictionary, 2022). Robert Jersek (2022) adapted the Unversity of MN Communication in the Real World text below to explain gestures:

There are three main types of gestures: adaptors, emblems, and illustrators (Andersen, 1999).

Adaptors are touching behaviors and movements that indicate internal states typically related to arousal or anxiety. Adaptors can be targeted toward the self, objects, or others. In regular social situations, adaptors result from uneasiness, anxiety, or a general sense that we are not in control of our surroundings. Many of us subconsciously click pens, shake our legs, or engage in other adaptors during classes, meetings, or while waiting as a way to do something with our excess energy.

Emblems are gestures that have an agreed-on meaning in a group, but are not part of a formal sign system like American Sign Language that is explicitly taught to a group of people.

Emblems are culturally relevant and yet some seem universal. Note, in the video above, the women use the “peace sign” while the wedding photos are being taken, a common emblem used in photos we’ve taken in Cambodia. However, this same gesture could mean something very different. Business Insider shares, “The ‘V’ sign, made by holding up the index and middle fingers, initially was used to signal victory by Allied nations during World War II. Anti-war activists later adopted it as a symbol of peace, and today the gesture is known as ‘the peace sign.’ In certain Commonwealth countries, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, an outward-facing V sign is an obscene gesture equivalent to giving someone the middle finger. The gesture is often performed by flicking the V up from the wrist or elbow” (2019).

Robert Jersek (2022) explains the gesture of the “OK” nonverbal symbol.

A hitchhiker’s raised thumb, the “OK” sign with thumb and index finger connected in a circle with the other three fingers sticking up, and the raised middle finger are all examples of emblems that have an agreed-on meaning or meanings within a culture. Emblems can be still or in motion; for example, circling the index finger around at the side of your head says “He or she is crazy,” or rolling your hands over and over in front of you says “Move on.”

The Anit-DefamationLeague (ADL) shares how this same emblem took on a variety of meanings:

The “okay” hand gesture—in which the thumb and index finger touch while the other fingers of the hand are held outstretched—is an obvious and ancient gesture that has arisen in many cultures over the years with different meanings.

Today, in a usage that dates to at least as early as 17th century Great Britain, it most commonly signals understanding, consent, approval or well-being. Since the early 1800s, the gesture increasingly became associated with the word “okay” and its abbreviation “ok.”  The gesture is also important in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds, as well as in yoga, where it is known as mudra or vitarka mudra, a symbol of inner perfection.  The “okay” hand gesture also forms part of the basis for a number of words or concepts in American Sign Language. It appears in many other contexts as well.

Use of the okay symbol in most contexts is entirely innocuous and harmless.

In 2017, the “okay” hand gesture acquired a new and different significance thanks to a hoax by members of the website 4chan to falsely promote the gesture as a hate symbol, claiming that the gesture represented the letters “wp,” for “white power.” The “okay” gesture hoax was merely the latest in a series of similar 4chan hoaxes using various innocuous symbols; in each case, the hoaxers hoped that the media and liberals would overreact by condemning a common image as white supremacist.

In the case of the “okay” gesture, the hoax was so successful the symbol became a popular trolling tactic on the part of right-leaning individuals, who would often post photos to social media of themselves posing while making the “okay” gesture (ADL, 2022).

Robert Jersek (2022), continues to explain the second category of gestures, the illustrator.

Illustrators are the most common type of gesture and are used to illustrate or support the verbal message they accompany. For example, you might use hand gestures to indicate the size or shape of an object. Unlike emblems, illustrators do not typically have meaning on their own and are used more subconsciously than emblems. These largely involuntary and seemingly natural gestures flow from us as we speak but vary in terms of intensity and frequency based on the context we’re in. Although we are never explicitly taught how to use illustrative gestures, we do it automatically.

Being aware of cultural differences in gestures can be important in cross-cultural encounters. Insult gestures tend to vary across cultures and are different as well in the extent to which they are used. In Greece, for example, the mountza (μούντζα) or moutza (μούτζα) is a commonly seen insult gesture. It consists of spreading the fingers (one hand or both) and trusting them outwards, towards the other person (as if flinging something unpleasant). In other cultures, the arm-thrust (bras d’honneur) is used, forging a fist and slapping it upwards under the biceps of the arm. Such gestures can be highly offensive and are often considered obscene. Other gestures may convey skepticism or disbelief, such as the French mon oeil (my eye), using a finger to pulldown the lower eyelid. The gesture is also used in Japan, known as the Akanbe (あかんべえ).

The caution in using gestures extends to those which may be widespread in a culture, and which we may interpret as universal. The North American A-OK sign (circled thumb and pointer finger, with the other fingers spread out) is an obscene gesture in many European cultures. Likewise, the inverted peace sign – two fingers facing inwards is an insult in England and Australia. The thumbs-up gesture signals in North America well done; in Greece and other countries, it is equivalent to the insulting “Up yours!” (Cotton, 2013). US President George W. Bush famously used the hook ‘em horns gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team to signal his approval of the marching band of the University of Texas. In Italy, that gesture is well-known, but it doesn’t signal fan enthusiasm or let’s rock. It is called il cornuto, indicating that the other person is a cuckold, that is, that his wife is cheating on him (Cotton, 2013).

Pointing with the forefinger is a gesture North Americans frequently use. Using that gesture to point at people is in some cultures extremely rude. Likewise, the beckoning gesture with palm turned upward and extending one finger or the whole hand is considered an insult in Japan and other countries. There are a variety of beckoning gestures, In Afghanistan and the Philippines, for example, one motions downward with the palm of the hand facing the ground (Cotton, 2013). Emblems have traditionally been culture-specific. However, the forces of globalization and technology have exposed people worldwide to gestures used in popular media (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2012). Through the greater availability globally of North American television shows and movies, as well as the popularity of social media such as Facebook and YouTube, some North American gestures, such as those for greeting and departure, have become familiar in many other cultures. (Jackson, 2014).

Some adaptor gestures are even considered rude in particular cultures; examples are: “never chew gum in public in France; whistling under any circumstances in India is considered impolite; pointing a finger in the Arab world is considered a rude gesture; and winking may be considered an insult or a sexual proposition in India and Pakistan” (Ting-Tooney, 1999, p. 126). Using adaptors in the wrong context or at the wrong time can be awkward or embarrassing.

Posture and Stance

Posture and stance are often both used to acknowledge others and communicate interest or attentiveness. For example, a head nod is a sign of acknowledgment in cultures where the formal bow is no longer used as a greeting and the head nod essentially serves as an abbreviated bow. The head shake back and forth to signal “no.” This nonverbal signal begins at birth, even before a baby has the ability to know that it has a corresponding meaning. Babies shake their head from side to side to reject their mother’s breast and later shake their head to reject attempts to spoon-feed (Pease & Pease, 2004). This biologically based movement then sticks with us to be a recognizable signal for “no.” We also move our head to indicate interest. For example, a head up typically indicates an engaged or neutral attitude, a head tilt indicates interest and is an innate submission gesture that exposes the neck and subconsciously makes people feel more trusting of us, and a head down signals a negative or aggressive attitude (Pease & Pease, 2004).

There are four general human postures: standing, sitting, squatting, and lying down (Hargie, 2011). Within each of these postures there are many variations, and when combined with particular gestures or other nonverbal cues they can express many different meanings. For example, putting our hands on our hips is a nonverbal cue that may show assertiveness. When the elbows are pointed out, this prevents others from getting past us as easily and may be interpreted as attempted dominance. In terms of sitting, leaning back can communicate informality and indifference, while leaning forward can show interest and attentiveness (Pease & Pease, 2004).

Eye Behavior

Eye behavior serves several communicative functions ranging from regulating interaction to monitoring interaction, to conveying information about physical or emotional states, to establishing interpersonal connections. In terms of regulating communication, we use eye contact to signal to others that we are ready to speak or we use it to cue others to speak. Eye contact is also used to monitor interaction by taking in feedback and other nonverbal cues and to send information. Our eyes bring in the visual information we need to interpret people’s movements, gestures, and eye contact. We can observe eye behavior to interpret if others are interested, confused, or bored and then try to adapt our message accordingly. Making eye contact with others can communicate in cultures that we are paying attention and are interested in what another person is saying.

Direct eye contact tends to shorten the sense of interpersonal distance, while an averted gaze increases it. In many cultures, such as in many Asian countries, avoiding eye contact conveys respect. In some situations, making eye contact communicates that one is paying attention. Breaking off eye contact can be a signal of disinterest or even rudeness. Within the US, different ethnic groups have been found to follow different norms in the use of eye contact to regulate conversations.

African-Americans often maintain eye contact when speaking but avert their gaze when listening, but just the opposite is typically true for European Americans (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978). This distinction can lead to conflict:

Interethnic expectancy violations exist when African Americans expect the European Americans to look them in the eyes when speaking but instead receive “non-responsiveness” or “indifference” cues. European Americans, on the other hand, may view the direct eye gaze during speaking as “confrontational” or “aggressive” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 126).

In both pluralistic societies and in cross-cultural encounters, being mindful of variations in this area is important. Nora Dresser’s book, Multicultural Matters (2005), chronicles how Korean-American shopkeepers, who did not make eye contact with their customers, were perceived as disrespectful, something contributing to the open confrontation taking place in US urban centers between some Asians and African-Americans. In some contexts in the US, such as in urban areas among teens and young adults, looking directly at someone can be seen as a provocation, reflected in the term “mad-dogging” (Remland et al., 2015).

Facial Expressions

Our faces are often thought to be the most expressive part of our bodies. It is often claimed that facial expressions – called affects displays – tend to be universal, the idea being that expressing basic emotions is an elemental, instinctive behavior common to all humans. This idea goes back to Charles Darwin (1872) who claimed all humans express emotion in the same way. This was later contradicted by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead (1975). It wasn’t until the 1960s that “universality studies” were conducted by Paul Ekman and others. In a series of experiments involving participants from a variety of cultures, they showed that there were six universal expressions — anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and surprise (Ekman, 1972). Later, a seventh expression, contempt, was added (Ekman & Heider, 1988). As the studies involved people from industrialized countries, who may have learned to interpret faces from mass media, other studies were conducted among tribal groups in New Guinea, which came to similar results (Ekman & Friesen, 1971). An interesting experiment conducted with athletes who were blind from birth produced the same results as their sighted colleagues (Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009). Because the blind athletes could not have ever visually seen the behaviors, one can assume there is an innate capacity to display facial expressions.

What causes particular emotions and determines their intensity can be quite different, both personally and culturally. It is also the case that in many contexts we are able to assert control over our expressions. Codes of general conduct, politeness, or social harmony may influence the public display of emotions. This was shown in a cross-cultural experiment (Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989), which studied expressions of Japanese and US students while watching emotionally disturbing films. When both groups of young people were among themselves, they showed the same expressions. However, when the Japanese students were with an older, male observer, they displayed neutral expressions or even smiled, while the US students continued to display the same negative emotions. Ekman and Friesen (1969) coined the term cultural display rules to describe such cultural differences in facial expressions. The concept explains the difference in expressions of the Japanese students in the experiment, as due to the cultural mandate in Japan of managing and minimizing expressions of feelings in the presence of a third party. In Japan it is culturally appropriate to hide unhappiness by smiling or embarrassment by laughing. While weeping in public is considered in Japan to be inappropriate, in Middle Eastern or Latin American cultures it is normal to express one’s emotions openly and visibly.

Using the concept of cultural display rules, Matsumoto (1990) developed a theory of the expression of emotions that incorporates an idea we’ll be exploring in an upcoming lesson: Hofstede’s taxonomies. According to the theory, because individualistic (individual-centered) cultures encourage and reward self-expression, individuals in those cultures are free to express fully and instinctively their feelings, whether they be positive or negative. On the other hand, those in collectivistic (group-centered or family-centered) cultures are bound by conventions of the collective good and social harmony to regulate their expression of emotion when not alone. Matsumoto also incorporates the concept of power distance:

High power-distance cultures endorse displays of emotion that reinforce hierarchical relations (i.e., status reminders), such as showing anger toward a low-status person or appeasing a high-status person (e.g., smiling or the depth of the bow when meeting). Low power-distance cultures embrace egalitarian values and teach the importance of treating people as equals. Thus, there is less pressure in these cultures for members to adjust displays of emotion according to the status of another person. (Remland et al., 2014)

High power distance cultures tend also to be labeled collectivistic; that would include most Middle-Eastern, Latin American, African and southern European countries. Low power/individualistic cultures are considered to be South Africa, North America, Australia, and northern Europe (Hofstede, 1980). As always, in such broad-stroke generalizations, caution is needed in applying these labels to individuals. While dominant cultural forces may be powerful, they may be contradicted and potentially negated by values associated with group membership, whether those be ethnic, regional, or other. It is also the case that individual personalities play a significant role in the degree to which emotions are displayed or suppressed. The patterns we’ve identified in nonverbal behavior should be seen as examples, but not as absolutes. Being aware of such potential variations can be helpful in adjusting expectations and suspending judgments.

Haptics (Touch)

Think of how touch has the power to comfort someone in a moment of sorrow when words alone cannot. This positive power of touch is countered by the potential for touch to be threatening because of its connection to sex and violence. To learn about the power of touch, we turn to haptics, which refers to the study of communication by touch. We probably get more explicit advice and instruction on how to use touch than any other form of nonverbal communication. A lack of nonverbal communication competence related to touch could have negative interpersonal consequences; for example, if we don’t follow the advice we’ve been given about the importance of a firm handshake, a person might make negative judgments about our confidence or credibility. A lack of competence could have more dire negative consequences, including legal punishment, if we touch someone sexually inappropriately (intentionally or unintentionally). Touch is necessary for human social development, and it can be welcoming, threatening, or persuasive.

There are also cultural conventions related to if and how the conversation partner should be touched. Touch conventions vary significantly across cultures and are dependent as well on age, gender, and relationship. In some Arab cultures, it is common for men to hold hands in particular situations. Some cultures have a taboo on touching the top of someone’s head, as in patting a child, as the head is considered sacred. Another taboo, in India, the Middle East, and Africa, is the use of the left hand in certain social situations, such as eating. Cooper, Calloway-Thomas & Simonds (2007) provide a set of rules in relation to touch in Thai culture:

    •   Don’t touch anyone’s head for any reason. The head is the most important part of the body. It is the seat of the soul.
    •   Do not touch a female on any part of her body.
    •   The feet are considered the “dirtiest” part of the body. They are used only for walking. Thus, it is an insult to rest your feet on someone else’s backrest, such as in the cinema or on a train—[Also, not removing one’s shoes before entering a Buddhist temple is considered disrespectful].
    •   Women must never touch a monk or his robe. Even on a bus or train, Women cannot sit next to a monk.
    •   Always accept things with your right hand. The left hand is used to wash the posterior and is therefore considered unclean (p. 138).

Being aware of such taboos in visiting another culture can make seemingly strange behavior understandable and help us to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Proxemics (Personal Space)

One of the actions which can affect the course of the conversation is for one or the other of the conversants to move closer or further away. Edward Hall (1966) pioneered the study of proxemics, the perception and use of physical space, including territoriality and personal space. Territoriality refers to the actual physical space, while personal space is perceptual or psychological – the kind of space bubble that we perceive around us.

Following complaints from both Arab and US students in a North American university setting, O.M. Watson (1970) investigated the nonverbal behavior of the two groups. He found that the US students viewed the Arabs as pushy and rude, while the Arabs considered the US students to be distant and rude. He discovered that a substantial part of the problem were different conceptions of personal space, with the US students feeling the Arab students were invading their bubbles and the Arab students seeing the US students as unfriendly because they were keeping their distance. Hall (1966) developed a four-level classification of social distance. For the US, he defined intimate space, reserved for highly personal relationships, as 9 to 18 inches (23 to 45 cm), and personal distance (“arm’s length”) at 1.5 to 4 feet (.5 to 1.2 m), the normal spacing for conversations. Social distance he established at between 4 and 12 feet (1.2 to 3.6 m), the spacing normal in casual gathering and work environments. Public distance he defined as being 12 feet (3.6 m) or longer, used for public speaking or large gatherings.

Researchers have identified particular cultures as “high contact”, meaning that there is a preference for a closer proximity and a high degree of physical contact (Aiello, 1987). Examples frequently given are Arabs, Latin Americans, and southern Europeans, who all tend to use closer interaction distances then in so-called low contact cultures (USA, northern Europe, Australia). There are other factors besides regional culture which may affect personal distance, such as gender, age, ethnicity, or topic of conversation.

Proxemic Distances

The video clip from a classic Seinfeld episode demonstrates how what the main character, Jerry, calls “close talking.”

Communication in the Real World (2016) notes the following information about distances. Note, this is a theory that describes Western, Individualistic cultures – how does this sense of space differ in other cultures?

We all have varying definitions of what our “personal space” is, and these definitions are contextual and depend on the situation and the relationship. Although our bubbles are invisible, people are socialized into the norms of personal space within their cultural group. Scholars have identified four zones for US Americans, which are public, social, personal, and intimate distance (Hall, 1968). The zones are more elliptical than circular, taking up more space in our front, where our line of sight is, than at our side or back where we can’t monitor what people are doing. You can see how these zones relate to each other and to the individual in Figure 4.1 below. Even within a particular zone, interactions may differ depending on whether someone is in the outer or inner part of the zone.

Figure 4.1 Proxemic Zones of Personal Space


Public Space (12 Feet or More)

Public and social zones refer to the space four or more feet away from our body, and the communication that typically occurs in these zones is formal and not intimate. Public space starts about twelve feet from a person and extends out from there. This is the least personal of the four zones and would typically be used when a person is engaging in a formal speech and is removed from the audience to allow the audience to see or when a high-profile or powerful person like a celebrity or executive maintains such a distance as a sign of power or for safety and security reasons. In terms of regular interaction, we are often not obligated or expected to acknowledge or interact with people who enter our public zone. It would be difficult to have a deep conversation with someone at this level because you have to speak louder and don’t have the physical closeness that is often needed to promote emotional closeness and/or establish rapport.

Social Space (4–12 Feet)

Communication that occurs in the social zone, which is four to twelve feet away from our body, is typically in the context of a professional or casual interaction, but not intimate or public. This distance is preferred in many professional settings because it reduces the suspicion of any impropriety. The expression “keep someone at an arm’s length” means that someone is kept out of the personal space and kept in the social/professional space. If two people held up their arms and stood so just the tips of their fingers were touching, they would be around four feet away from each other, which is perceived as a safe distance because the possibility for intentional or unintentional touching doesn’t exist. It is also possible to have people in the outer portion of our social zone but not feel obligated to interact with them, but when people come much closer than six feet to us then we often feel obligated to at least acknowledge their presence. In many typically sized classrooms, much of your audience for a speech will actually be in your social zone rather than your public zone, which is actually beneficial because it helps you establish a better connection with them. Students in large lecture classes should consider sitting within the social zone of the professor, since students who sit within this zone are more likely to be remembered by the professor, be acknowledged in class, and retain more information because they are close enough to take in important nonverbal and visual cues. Students who talk to me after class typically stand about four to five feet away when they speak to me, which keeps them in the outer part of the social zone, typical for professional interactions. When students have more personal information to discuss, they will come closer, which brings them into the inner part of the social zone.

Personal Space (1.5–4 Feet)

Personal and intimate zones are spaces that start at our physical body and extend about four feet. These zones are reserved for friends, close acquaintances, and significant others. Much American communication occurs in the personal zone, typically thought of as one’s “personal space bubble,” and extends from 1.5 feet to 4 feet away from our body. Even though we are getting closer to the physical body of another person, we may use verbal communication at this point to signal that our presence in this zone is friendly and not intimate. Even people who know each other could be uncomfortable unnecessarily spending too much time in this zone. This zone is divided into two subzones, which helps us negotiate close interactions with people we may not be close to interpersonally (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995). The outer-personal zone extends from 2.5 feet to 4 feet and is helpful for conversations that need to be private but that occurs between people who are not interpersonally close. This zone allows for relatively intimate communication but does not convey the intimacy of a closer distance, which can be beneficial in professional settings. The inner-personal area extends from 1.5 to 2.5 feet and is a space reserved for communicating with people we are interpersonally close to or trying to get to know. In this subzone, we can easily touch the other person as we talk to them, briefly placing a hand on their arm or engaging in light social touching that facilitates conversation, self-disclosure, and feelings of closeness.

Intimate Space

As we breach the invisible line that is 1.5 feet from our body, we enter the intimate zone, which is reserved for only the closest friends, family, and romantic/intimate partners. It is impossible to completely ignore people when they are in this space, even if we are trying to pretend that we’re ignoring them. A breach of this space can be comforting in some contexts and annoying or frightening in others. We need regular human contact that isn’t just verbal but also physical. We have already discussed the importance of touch in nonverbal communication, and in order for that much-needed touch to occur, people have to enter our intimate space. Being close to someone and feeling their physical presence can be very comforting when words fail. There are also social norms regarding the amount of this type of closeness that can be displayed in public, as some people get uncomfortable even seeing others interacting in the intimate zone. While some people are comfortable engaging in or watching others engage in PDAs (public displays of affection) others are not.

So what happens when our space is violated? Although these zones are well established in research for personal space preferences of US Americans, individuals vary in terms of their reactions to people entering certain zones, and determining what constitutes a “violation” of space is subjective and contextual. For example, another person’s presence in our social or public zones doesn’t typically arouse suspicion or negative physical or communicative reactions, but it could in some situations or with certain people. However, many situations lead to our personal and intimate space being breached by others against our will, and these breaches are more likely to be upsetting, even when they are expected. We’ve all had to get into a crowded elevator or wait in a long line. In such situations, we may rely on some verbal communication to reduce immediacy and indicate that we are not interested in closeness and are aware that a breach has occurred. People make comments about the crowd, saying, “We’re really packed in here like sardines,” or use humor to indicate that they are pleasant and well adjusted and uncomfortable with the breach like any “normal” person would be. Interestingly, as we will learn in our discussion of territoriality, we do not often use verbal communication to defend our personal space during regular interactions. Instead, we rely on more nonverbal communication like moving, crossing our arms, or avoiding eye contact to deal with breaches of space.


Territoriality is an innate drive to take up and defend spaces. This drive is shared by many creatures and entities, ranging from packs of animals to individual humans to nations. Whether it’s a gang territory, a neighborhood claimed by a particular salesperson, your preferred place to sit in a restaurant, your usual desk in the classroom, or the seat you’ve marked to save while getting concessions at a sporting event, we claim certain spaces as our own. There are three main divisions for territory: primary, secondary, and public (Hargie, 2011). Sometimes our claim to a space is official. These spaces are known as our primary territories because they are marked or understood to be exclusively ours and under our control. A person’s house, yard, room, desk, side of the bed, or shelf in the medicine cabinet could be considered primary territories.

Secondary territories don’t belong to us and aren’t exclusively under our control, but they are associated with us, which may lead us to assume that the space will be open and available to us when we need it without us taking any further steps to reserve it. This happens in classrooms regularly. Students often sit in the same desk or at least same general area as they did on the first day of class. There may be some small adjustments during the first couple of weeks, but by a month into the semester, I don’t notice students moving much voluntarily. When someone else takes a student’s regular desk, she or he is typically annoyed. I do classroom observations for the graduate teaching assistants I supervise, which means I come into the classroom toward the middle of the semester and take a seat in the back to evaluate the class session. Although I don’t intend to take someone’s seat, on more than one occasion, I’ve been met by the confused or even glaring eyes of a student whose routine is suddenly interrupted when they see me sitting in “their seat.”

Public territories are open to all people. People are allowed to mark public territory and use it for a limited period of time, but space is often up for grabs, which makes public space difficult to manage for some people and can lead to conflict. To avoid this type of situation, people use a variety of objects that are typically recognized by others as nonverbal cues that mark a place as temporarily reserved—for example, jackets, bags, papers, or a drink. There is some ambiguity in the use of markers, though. A half-empty cup of coffee may be seen as trash and thrown away, which would be an annoying surprise to a person who left it to mark his or her table while visiting the restroom. One scholar’s informal observations revealed that a full drink sitting on a table could reserve a space in a university cafeteria for more than an hour, but a cup only half full usually only worked as a marker of territory for less than ten minutes. People have to decide how much value they want their marker to have. Obviously, leaving a laptop on a table indicates that the table is occupied, but it could also lead to the laptop getting stolen. A pencil, on the other hand, could just be moved out of the way and the space usurped.


Chronemics refers to the study of how time affects communication. Time can be classified into several different categories, including biological, personal, physical, and cultural time (Andersen, 1999). Biological time refers to the rhythms of living things. Humans follow a circadian rhythm, meaning that we are on a daily cycle that influences when we eat, sleep, and wake. When our natural rhythms are disturbed, by all-nighters, jet lag, or other scheduling abnormalities, our physical and mental health and our communication competence and personal relationships can suffer. Keep biological time in mind as you communicate with others. Remember that early morning conversations and speeches may require more preparation to get yourself awake enough to communicate well and a more patient or energetic delivery to accommodate others who may still be getting warmed up for their day.

Personal time refers to the ways in which individuals experience time. The way we experience time varies based on our mood, our interest level, and other factors. Think about how quickly time passes when you are interested in and therefore engaged in something. I have taught fifty-minute classes that seemed to drag on forever and three-hour classes that zipped by. Individuals also vary based on whether or not they are future or past oriented. People with past-time orientations may want to reminisce about the past, reunite with old friends, and put considerable time into preserving memories and keepsakes in scrapbooks and photo albums. People with future-time orientations may spend the same amount of time making career and personal plans, writing out to-do lists, or researching future vacations, potential retirement spots, or what book they’re going to read next.

Physical time refers to the fixed cycles of days, years, and seasons. Physical time, especially seasons, can affect our mood and psychological states. Some people experience seasonal affective disorder that leads them to experience emotional distress and anxiety during the changes of seasons, primarily from warm and bright to dark and cold (summer to fall and winter).

Cultural time refers to how a large group of people view time. Polychronic people do not view time as a linear progression that needs to be divided into small units and scheduled in advance. Polychronic people keep more flexible schedules and may engage in several activities at once. Monochronic people tend to schedule their time more rigidly and do one thing at a time. A polychronic or monochronic orientation to time influences our social realities and how we interact with others.

Additionally, the way we use time depends in some ways on our status. For example, doctors can make their patients wait for extended periods of time, and executives and celebrities may run consistently behind schedule, making others wait for them. Promptness and the amount of time that is socially acceptable for lateness and waiting varies among individuals and contexts. Chronemics also covers the amount of time we spend talking. We’ve already learned that conversational turns and turn-taking patterns are influenced by social norms and help our conversations progress. We all know how annoying it can be when a person dominates a conversation or when we can’t get a person to contribute anything.

Olfactics (Smell)

Personal distance is sometimes associated with smell. The study of smell in humans is called olfactics. In some cultures (in Africa and the Middle East, for example) there’s a preference for standing close enough to a person in conversation to be able to detect body odor. Odor is used in such cases to categorize people according to status, power, or social class. In many cultures wearing an expensive perfume or cologne can signal status and wealth. On the other hand, the smell of sweat or strong body odor is likely to suggest manual labor and lower social status. Some smells are associated with particular ethnic groups and may lead to prejudicial treatment. The smell of curry, linked to South Asians, has been used as a basis for discrimination, such as refusing to rent apartments to Indians or Pakistani (Jackson, 2014). Although some smells seem to be universally attractive (jasmine, lavender, roses) others may vary in how they are perceived across cultures. The smell of onions, for example, is considered unpleasant in many cultures, but the Dagon people of Mali find the smell attractive, even to the point of rubbing onions on their bodies (Neuliep, 2006).

Physical Appearance, Objects, Artifacts, and Dress

“Personal Appearance,” “Objects,” and “Artifacts” are types of nonverbal communication we use to adorn our bodies and surroundings to communicate meaning to others. Consider your preferences for hairstyle, clothing, jewelry, and automobiles and how you maintain your body. Your choices express meaning to those around you about your values and the image you wish to put forth. As with most communication, our choices for personal appearance, objects, and artifacts occur within cultural contexts and are interpreted in light of these contexts. Consider the recent trendiness and popularity of tattoos. While once associated primarily with prison and armed services, tattoos have become mainstream and are used to articulate various personal, political, and cultural messages.

One of the important nonverbal signals all humans send comes through our appearance, i.e. how we dress, arrange our hair, or use body art. Many cultures have rules and conventions for dress and appearance, established through custom or religious beliefs. Many women in Muslim countries, for example, dress so that their hair is covered and, in some cases, also their bodies and faces. In some cases, dress can provide information about social/economic position, marital status, or age. In Japan, women’s komodos vary according to the time of year and occasion, but also based on marital status and age. For the Masai tribe in Kenya, earrings and necklaces designate the marital status of women, while men wear earrings and arm rings that show their social status, indicating whether they are elders or warriors (Vandehey, Buergh & Krueger, 1996). In rural northern India, the level of a woman’s veil over her face can indicate romantic interest or disinterest (Lambert & Wood, 2005). Dress and physical appearance can be important identifiers for membership in particular groups. Members of motorcycle gangs wear black leather and heavy boots. Japanese businessmen (“salarymen”) wear dark, conservative suits and plain ties. Japanese tourists often wear a resort hotel’s yukata (a lightweight komodo) signaling to others in the town their role (Ting-Toomey, 1999). In this way, forms of dress serve as identity markers. Certain uniforms signal professions, as in the case of police officers or members of the military, while also conveying a sense of authority and power.

Intercultural bias can play a large role in the responses people have to appearance and dress. Body piercings and tattoos were once widely considered indicators of low-prestige professional status (sailors, carnival workers), but have become mainstream among young people in the US and elsewhere. Older people are likely to retain the biased images from the past and may have a negative view of heavily tattooed or pierced young people. One of the persistent stereotypes is in regards to women’s dress and appearance. Young women in mini skirts and tank tops, especially if blonde, may be perceived as flighty and unintelligent. Muslim women wearing a hijab face prejudice and discrimination in many Western non-Muslim countries, which is even more pronounced for those wearing a whole body burqua. In some Western countries, wearing traditional Muslim female dress in public or in schools has been banned. Interestingly, in many Muslim countries such as Iran, wearing traditional garments, like the particular wearing of the hijab is required by law and enforced by a special “morality police,” The harsh treatment of an Iranian woman in the custody of the morality police led to her death. Consequently, demonstrations, with police using violence in many cases, have arisen in cities througout Iran.


Jerek notes (2022):

Different Shades of Black Identity

If you are a light-skinned Black person, you are looked upon as “uppity” or thinking that you’re too good. This is something I have come across a lot. For my first year of college, I attended the first historically Black college, Lincoln University. It was my first time being around that many African Americans (the high school I attended was mostly Caucasian). I am naturally shy, so I would walk around not speaking to anyone. In many cases, I would walk around looking at the ground or just with no expression on my face whatsoever. I was viewed as the “uppity” light-skinned girl who thought she was too good for everyone else.

Remland et al., 2014, p. 149.


Appearance messages are generally the first nonverbal codes we process, sizing up the other person based on skin color, appearance, and clothing. The first impression might determine our attitude towards another person, helping to determine whether we want to get to know that person or not. Sometimes, some features of the other person’s appearance might lead to specific prejudgments. One of those might be the particular shade of skin. Black people with darker skin are sometimes viewed as somehow less attractive or having lower status than those with lighter skin. Light-skinned Blacks may feel discriminated against as well (see above). In South American countries such as Brazil, there is a rich mix of ethnicities and races, resulting in a wide range of skin colors and a complex social hierarchy, built in part on the particular shade of one’s skin (Communication in the Real World).

Case Study: My Culture is NOT A Costume



The OER book, Introduction to Public Communication, shares:

Our environment acts as a nonverbal through our use of perception in the surroundings or conditions we occupy. Think of your home, room, automobile, or office space. What meanings can others perceive about you from these spaces? What meanings are you trying to send by how you keep them? Think about spaces you use frequently and the nonverbal meanings they have for you. Stimuli in your environment can trigger memories and affect your mood, changing or influencing your emotional responses and actions. The environment can produce physiological responses also.

Color theory looks at how colors impact our mood, physical response, and represent cultural dichotomies. Most educational institutions intentionally paint classrooms in dull colors. Why? Dull colors on walls have a calming effect, theoretically keeping students from being distracted by bright colors and excessive stimuli. Contrast the environment of a classroom to that of a fast food restaurant. These establishments have bright colors and hard plastic seats and tables. The bright colors generate an upbeat environment, while the hard plastic seats are just uncomfortable enough to keep patrons from staying too long–remember, it’s fast food (Restaurants See Color As Key Ingredient). The bright colors have also been shown to increase appetite. People and cultures place different emphasis on the use of space as a way to communicate nonverbally. Briggs (2016) for SmarterTravel, provides a more detailed look at color theory in relationship to culture, read “What Colors Mean in Other Cultures”.

Sound is another environment nonverbal and has the ability to communicate emotion and change behavior. You may immediately think about how listening to music can change your mood or remind you of personal experiences that create emotional responses. What about studying, working out, or driving, what kind of music do you listen to? It seems silly because we do not think about it but would you try to work out to Mozart or study to Screamo or heavy metal? This is because you recognize that music unconsciously can increase your energy and change your disposition as well as allow for more or less concentration. Have you ever noticed yourself driving faster when a fast song plays in the car? These may be more easily understood but sound also acts to change behavior. Sound has the potential to increase cortisol (a hormone) release in the body that sends you into fight or flight. Think about the last time you heard a fire alarm or a tornado siren, you probably didn’t think about it at the time but did your heart jump? Most likely, your heart rate increased. There is an entire market built around sound scapes and how brands communicate a message and get you the consumer to recognize sound and spend more. Here is a Ted Talk by Julian Treasure, a sound consultant that further explains sound and how it affects us cognitively, behaviorally,  physiologically, and psychologically (2009).
Attribution: Indiana State University Press, Introduction to Public Communication.


Case Study – Nonverbal Communication and Wedding Rituals in Cambodia

As noted at the start of this chapter, Cambodian weddings follow many rituals. The author of this video shares his experience through his American eyes coupled with his Cambodian family and, in particular, his wife’s perspective. His experience in 2021 differs slightly from Lori and Mark’s experiences from 2013, the last trip, but as folks say in Cambodia – “same, same but different.”  This wedding is very similar to weddings we have been to, except on a much larger, lavish scale. When we attended weddings, we could find similarities to weddings in American culture, such as the bride wearing a white wedding dress. However, as the groom shares in this video, there are many additional ceremonies and rituals in traditional Cambodian weddings. This video shows traditional pre-wedding rituals, such as carrying two beautifully adorned fruit baskets to the groom’s site or home. When we first visited Cambodia, our friends shared, “You will see we have a reverse dowry; the man has to share so many cows or other goods to marry the woman.”  Some weddings have other ceremonies, such as a traditional hair-cutting ceremony aligned with Chinese culture.

From this video, notice gestures, body movements, intonations, artifacts – and what the groom says it is to “go all out” from the bride’s mother’s wedding planning business.


Reflection Questions:

  1. What artifacts did you notice that were new to you? What artifacts do you think should not be used in a wedding ceremony?
  2. How does the wedding party use body movement?
  3. What did you see about proxemics – how was space used?
  4. Notice the posture and seating of individuals; how do these areas of nonverbal communication differ from your experiences at weddings?
  5. The groom mentions symbols that he has seen, such as Lexus brand logos/artifacts. Why might these be shown at a wedding like this?

Nonverbal Expectancy Violation Theory

As in other areas tied to cultural messages and behaviors, people develop an expectation of conformity with the conventions or the unwritten rules of nonverbal behavior. US Americans who aren’t Muslim typically don’t expect women to wear headscarves as normal everyday attire. US Americans do expect to shake hands upon meeting someone for the first time, which may not happen if, as a non-related man, we are meeting a Muslim woman. Such occurrences are, in the formulation of Judee Burgoon (1978), violations of nonverbal expectancy. According to this theory, people have expectations about the appropriateness of nonverbal behavior, which is learned and culturally driven. When these expectations are violated, it produces a reaction she describes as “arousal”, which can be physiological or cognitive, positive or negative. Our reaction to this arousal depends on the severity of the violation, our perceptions of the person (such as perceived attractiveness), and the implicit message associated with the violation. The context and the person will determine our reaction. If a person standing too close at a party (thereby violating personal space) is perceived as attractive and well groomed, the reaction is likely to be quite different than if that person is perceived as slovenly and unattractive.

Reactions to violations of nonverbal codes depend as well on the nature of our communicative and cultural environment. If we are accustomed to small-group insider-based communication, we may be more dependent on nonverbal messages and are therefore more adept at decoding nonverbal behavior. In that case, for example, silence might be evaluated positively and perceived quite differently than it is in cultures where periods of silence in a conversation run counter to expectations. In intercultural communication contexts, violations of expectations by a non-native could be seen as naïve/endearing or strange/rude depending on how we view that person.

In South Asian countries, sitting with one’s back towards someone older in age or authority, or having the soles of one’s feet face someone older in age or stature or authority, or books – the source of knowledge, or the altar, is considered very rude (Malik, personal communication, September 18, 2017). That is the reason why one is unlikely to find book shelves or altars at the feet of the bed or against or on the wall facing the feet of the bed. It is also considered inappropriate to have an altar or, occasionally, the photographs of one’s ancestors in a bedroom that is likely to be used as a conjugal bedroom.

One of the cultural norms that may lead to adverse reactions is the public display of affection. In most Western cultures, there has long been acceptance of heterosexual couples touching and kissing in public. The degree to which this occurs differs. Researchers have found that this is more common, for example, among French and Italian young couples than in the US (Field, 1999; DiBiase & Gunnoe, 2004). Acceptance of homosexual couples is widespread today in many Western countries, but not in many other parts of the world. In most Muslim cultures, the strict separation of unmarried people disallows even heterosexual contact in public. In India, some public displays of affection are taboo. In 2007, US actor Richard Gere faced widespread condemnation in India, after kissing Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at a televised fund-raising event. A photo of the kiss made front-page news across India, and effigies and photos of both Gere and Shetty were burned. An Indian court issued an arrest warrant for Gere, as he had “transgressed all limits of vulgarity” (Indian Court, 2007).

It is of course not possible to know all the ins and outs of nonverbal transgressions in every country. On the other hand, it is certainly possible to be informed about the cultural practices in countries which we plan to visit or among local communities with whom we are likely to have contact. To the extent possible, we should act in accordance with cultural expectations. That might mean taking off shoes before entering a home, or dressing more modestly then we would normally. On the other hand, we may oppose particular practices for religious, political, or philosophical reasons, and consciously refuse to adapt to local customs. That might mean, for example, women not accepting the prescribed cultural role in behavior, bearing, or dress expected in a particular culture. In general, it is good practice to anticipate nonverbal expectations to the degree possible. Even if we don’t know the specifics of expectations in a given culture, we can certainly observe and learn. Burgoon’s theory suggests that if we are well-intentioned, yet unaware of specific practices, it is likely others will be lenient in overlooking transgressions. In fact, it may be that expectations for foreigners in this regard are different than they are for natives. Koreans, for example, would likely not expect foreigners to be familiar with the intricacies of bowing as they interface with Korean social hierarchies.

Case Study – Latin American Stereotypes

The four women in this video explain the stereotypes of Latin Americans. The video is shared due to how they explain how people dance and how they are similar (same-same, but different) once again. They speak from their own experiences about how they see stereotypes in their respective cultures.


Reflection Questions:

  1. What surprised you from hearing about their experiences in different Spanish-speaking countries?
  2. Could you distinguish different accents?
  3. Did you notice different gestures or similar gestures?
  4. What do you want to know more about?


Section Three: Developing Intercultural Nonverbal Communication Competency

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify and employ strategies for improving competence with sending nonverbal messages.
  2. Identify and employ strategies for improving competence in interpreting nonverbal messages.

Tips for Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal and verbal communication are intertwined. Realizing how one’s movements, posture, eye contact, and even weight, height, and eye color can impact an intercultural communication interaction is the first step toward gaining competency in this area. The steps toward integrating new interculturally sensitive behaviors into one’s toolbox of communication skills can often follow the persuasive model: awareness, understanding, agreement, action, then integration (Osborn et al.). To be aware is a vital step forward. Researching and interacting with individuals from new co-cultures and cultures before an intercultural communication interview will give one a set of questions to ask the interviewee.

Psychology Today contributor Dr. Marianna Pogosyan (2017), an intercultural consultant, offers three easy tips to consider when communicating with someone from another culture or nation:

Not all cultures embrace the “selfie.” Ask before taking a photo. Creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com



1. Try to be pleasant. Most people like pleasant people and a simple smile goes a long way.

2. Be interested. Show interest in other people, languages and cultural artifacts. Ask questions. Then intercultural interaction doesn’t become a hassle – it becomes an adventure.

3. Try to learn something important about the language and culture of your interlocutor. For example, learn and try some simple phrases. “Good morning,” “please,” and “thank you” go a long way to greasing many interactions. A lot of people will then feel like they want to help you out, which can help you get over any kind of communication issues. And, you’ll grow as you interact (Pogosyan, 2017).


Case Study The RCTC Cambodia Service Learning Trip & Our Friends

Mark and Lori would treasure sharing about the many lessons learned (from students and ourselves) from ten years of coordinating the RCTC Cambodia Service Learning trip. Our experience positively impacted our whole family. We chose the following videos to demonstrate the power of nonverbal communication.

Kim Sin’s dream was to bring students to Cambodia. Kim Sin is an active Rochester, MN volunteer with a growing family and many projects afoot. He works at the University of MN, Rochester, in the Technology area. This video shares his story. He shares his impacting experience – notice how the nonverbal message of seeing the children on the garbage dump drew him in (a nonverbal message) and how he called them over (come eat anything menu) to take a break. Twelve years after this video was created and 15 years after our first trip, we are still in contact with our Cambodian Family Organization and can help our students connect with American students.


This second video shares an early snapshot of the origins of our RCTC “One Toilet at a Time” project. Note that the speaker shares how words are not necessary.

This second, older video, again, shares the story of  Chung”Chuill” Lip and his perspective of the partnership from the RCTC/Cambodian Family Organization collaborative trips — as well as the family he found in the process:

Since these KAAL and KTTC videos aired, Chuill transferred from RCTC and graduated from Augsburg College with a double major in Biology and Psychology. He then graduated with his Master’s of Public Health from Columbia University. After a semester off, he went back to school for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) at Mount Aloysius College. He is currently employed as a Nurse at Penn Medicine. Chuill has just completed his autobiographical book dedicated to his mother: Hers


This excerpt from his autobiographical book, Hers, shares Chuill’s nonverbal interpretation of meeting the RCTC team. Students who would like to ZOOM interview Chuill should contact Lori. He has many descriptions and videos about his experience. He shares this description from “Day 15:”

a photo of the quote from Chung Lip's book Hers“Hello, everyone! We have great news for you all! A group of American students led by Lori will arrive in a few weeks! I need a few volunteers to go welcome them at the airport!” It was December 2011 when Thanak announced the news during class. Lori was one of my favorite American people on the trip each year. At first, I thought she didn’t work. She was just traveling around the world like one of the students. Then I learned that she was a teacher, and more importantly, she was the one who made everything possible. No wonder she showed up every year! I thought. I remember her from the smell of the lifesaver mints and the bags she carried everywhere with her. I was always amazed at the things she could fit in those bags! Sometimes I watched her pulling things out endlessly as if there was a truckload of stuff in those never-empty bags. Besides that, there were many other memorable characteristics of Lori. She sounded so sweet, so lovely and enchanting, yet she could talk through a crowd of hundreds without a microphone! She was the one who changed people’s lives by giving them unforgettable experiences throughout the trip or at least she changed mine! “Me, Bong, me!” I said. I was always trying to be the first to volunteer when there was anything to do with the Americans. Back then, all I wanted was to practice my English with the American students so I could speak as good as Thanak did. I thought if I could be as good as him, I would have a better chance of getting a job where I wouldn’t have to work for a Cambodian-owned business or agency and fall into the depth of corruption.” (Chung, 2022, p. 217).

It is true, Chuill learned to speak like Thanak. Both Thanak and Chuill came to and are currently living in the United States, both happily married and contributing to the joy and well-being of others in their careers.

As for my nonverbal communication in this excerpt, it is true: I carry bags of bags. I would love to travel my whole life, but yes, I also love to teach and feel most at home teaching with service learning and on-site visits with experts like Chung “Chuill” Lip leading the conversations. Mark and I were able to lead 8 trips with Kim SIn, Thanak, Chuill, and so many Cambodian Family Organization (CFO) leaders. We often used nonverbal communication to communicate. I know I broke the norms, I was (and still am) the one who can be loud with her “teacher voice” that does not need a microphone. My intent was to be clear, not rude or attention-seeking. A loud woman in Cambodia was undoubtedly not the norm then (and my students and friends share, still today).

When we were in Cambodia Thanak was our leader, along with our American leader, Kim Sin. The amount of care that our Cambodian friends and Kim Sin gave to us was remarkable. The opportunities to learn from serving are endless. The mints we called “Magic Mints,” and I used to exaggerate the power of mints (Lifesavers), asserting, “They help with carsickness,”  or “They help with diarrhea,” and even, “If you feel lonely for home, it will bring you back to a taste/smell of home.”  Interestingly, the Cambodian leaders and drivers were saying the same about Cambodian Tiger Balm (now Chuill and Kim call it “Cambodian Vicks Vapor Rub”). They would also bring fruits and candies to distract car-sick Cambodian students. The American students often asked for a mint to “help drown out that Tiger Balm smell” that was “making me sick.”In this example, there are many layers of nonverbal communication – both intentional and unintentional. I didn’t know the impact a trip would have on all of us. We are indebted to our Cambodian friends whom we call family.

Other stories related by Chuill:

Augsburg College Produced the following video that includes Chuill’s story:

Reflection Questions:

  1. How does Kim Sin become impacted by the environmental nonverbal cues in the physical context


In summary, nonverbals messages are being sent and received constantly, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Also, we don’t just send or receive these messages one at a time; rather, nonverbal messages are often woven together in complex ways to help us navigate challenging contexts. As we’ve explored in this lesson, nonverbal signals come not just from body movements such as handshaking or bowing but also through the presence (or absence) of personal objects or artifacts. Those may be articles of clothing, jewelry or accessories we wear or hold, or might be physical items surrounding us. Signals may be sent by more intangible means such as smell or sound. There may be a complex array of nonverbal factors at play, as in this example of nonverbal behavior at a military checkpoint:

A Sunni driver coming up to a security post he believes is under Shia control should not only have the right ID to hand, but should also push in a tape playing Shia religious songs and turn up the volume. He should hang a picture of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the most revered figure in the Shia faith, from the rear-view mirror. He might also slip on the large silver ring worn only by Shias, especially those considered to be descendants of the Prophet, and perhaps carry a “torba”, the round piece of clay that Shias often place on their foreheads when they bow down in prayer. These and other handy tips are given on the Iraqi Rabita website, designed to advise Sunnis on how to get through Shia checkpoints (Checkpoints, 2007).

The situation is not likely one most of us will ever encounter, but it dramatizes the importance of nonverbal codes in particular contexts. In such situations, nonverbals can play a significant role in easing tensions. On the other hand, inappropriate nonverbal behavior can easily have the opposite effect, exacerbating potential tensions and even causing open conflict.

Chapter 6 Key Terms:

  • Nonverbal Communication
  • Artifact
  • Paralanguage
  • Vocal & Nonvocal
  • intentional vs. unintentional communication
  • 65-90% of meaning comes from nonverbal communication
  • Ambiguous nature of nonverbal communication
  • Nonverbal Cue
  • Nonverbal Communication conveys meaning by reinforcement, repetition, contradiction, and replacement of verbal messages
  • Mixed messages
  • Deception
  • Tie signs
  • Immediacy behaviors
  • Kinesics
    • Gestures
      • Adaptors
      • Emblems
      • Illustrators
    • Posture & Stance
    • Eye Contact & Eye Gaze
    • Facial Expressions
    • How low/high context; high/low power cultures react
  • Haptics
  • Vocalics
  • Proxemics
    • Personal Distance
    • Territoriality
  • Chronemics – monochronic & polychronic
  • Olfactics
  • Physical Appearance & Dress
  • Nonverbal Expectancy Violation Theory
  • Microaggressions & Microexpressions
  • How to improve nonverbal communication in intercultural contexts


Appendix: Links to Culture Specific Nonverbal Communication Do’s & Don’ts


We are grateful for the use of the following Open Education Resources remixed above as noted and under the Creative Commons 4.0 License.

  1. Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication (2020) by Robert Godwin-Jones.
  2. Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016).
    1. [Author removed at request of original publisher]. (2016, September 29). The University of M.N. Communication in the Real World. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/front-matter/publisher-information/


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