Culture in verbal and non verbal communication

I decided to post here on my blog a short essay that I wrote about a topic that I find very interesting.

I hope it might be useful for you all, both for your studies and daily life!

Examine the relationship between verbal and
non verbal communication. 

What part does culture play in this?

TypesOfNonVerbalCommunicationAll humans can communicate in an effective and appropriate way through spoken language, nonverbal actions and symbols. The goal of this essay is to analyse the role of culture in intercultural relationships, with a specific focus on verbal and non verbal codes. Definitions will be the starting point of the reseach, and examples will be given in order to study to what extent communication can be culture-specific, especially when conveying non verbal messages.

Communication is a dynamic process composed by multiple elements and steps: a sender, encoding, messages, channels, noises, a receiver, decoding, the receiver’s response and feedback, and context. It may be intentional or unintentional and it is always influenced by factors such as time, topic and circumstances as well as one’s cultural background (Jandt, 1998: 27). Verbal communication is composed by sounds, words and language which has a direct relationship with culture, as affirmed by the Sapir-Whorf hypotesis.


Non verbal communication is defined as “those actions and attributes that have socially shared meaning, are intentionally sent or intepreted as intentional, are consciously sent or consciously received, and have the potential for feedback from the receiver.” (Burgoon, Boller & Woodall, 1988, as cited in Jackson, 2014: 124). These two types of communication are learnt over time and can be understood in different ways according to culture.

There is a strong connection between language and non verbal codes in order to create an effective communication, since they both share symbols and behaviours learnt over time since primary socialisation. Albert Mehrabian affirms that “93% of meaning is conveyed through nonverbal communication channels.” (Mehrabian, 1982, as cited in Jackson, 2014: 101). The percentage is overstimated, but surely nonverbal codes have a fundamental role in communication. According to Charles Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, facial expressions are biologically determined and cannot be taught. Recent reseaches show that there are seven facial expressions that are universally displayed, regardless of one’s cultural background. These are anger, disgust, happiness, fear, sadness, and surprise. (Ekman et al., 1987, as cited in Jackson, 2014 : 114). What is culture-specific is the meaning and to what extent we show such expressions. For example “in some cultures smiles can communicate not understanding but apprehension” (Jandt, 2010: 99).

Non verbal communication plays different functions in order to convey personal identity, express relationships, replace, emphasise or repeate a statement, help to relay awkward messages, regulate interactions, displaying emotions and finally it is used in rituals. (Jackson, 2014: 102) This communication is intentionally used to convey a message and sometimes it is so cultural specific that can create or reinforce a national stereotype (for example Italians are known to use their hands to accompany their speech).


 These codes can be categorised as it follows:

Proxemics – the interpersonal space to regulate intimacy. For example Latin Americans have a more intimate contact since the very first socialisation process (they kiss on both cheeks) while Northen Americans tend to shake hands (Jackson, 2014: 118).

Kinesics – include body movements, gestures and facial expressions and can be intentional or unconscious. A sign can have several meanings according to culture and sometimes it can lead to misunderstandings. For example, “the forefinger-to-thumb gesture can mean ‘okay’ in the US. In France, it means zero or worthless. In Japan, the same gesture can mean ‘money,’ but it is a symbol many times more offensive than the raised middle finger in Brazil!”. Body language also includes posture and affective displays: smiling is universal but it may mean different emotions in some cultural contexts. For example in Japan and South Korea people smile or giggle when facing awkard or overly personal situations (such as a mistake at work or the news that a close friend has died (Jandt, 2010: 106).

Chronemics –  how people use, perceive and structure their time. It can be monochronic (doing one thing at a time) as in Western countries and Japan in which the concept of “time is money” is a key factor; or polychronic (multiple tasks at once) as in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Arabic countries. (Jackson, 2014: 123).

Paralanguage – includes vocal qualifiers, characterisers and segregates. “Psst” is accepted in Spain to call a waiter. Tonal language in English can express emotions, such as sarcasm. Finally, accent can be considered as paralanguage: in English one’s accent can reveal educational background. (Jandt, 2010: 111). Even silence can have different meanings according to culture: Northen Canadian indigenous are not used to being silent among a group of friends for a long period, while in India it is used to “promote harmony, cooperation, and other collectivistic values.” (Jain & Matukumalli, 1993, as cited in Jandt, 2010: 112).

Clothing and physical appearance – specific pieces of clothing, colours or brands communicate aspects of one’s identiy to the others, and often are cultural specific. Good examples are thawbs in Saudi Arabia, saris in India and Bangladesh, capulanas in Mozambique and pochos in the Andean communities. Colours are highly symbolic and important to convey a message: red is good luck in China but bad luck in Korea; white is purety for Westernised countries but means sorrow and funerals in China. On the other hand, black is the colour used in Western countries when mourning. (Jandt, 2010: 114). Physical appearance, features and artifacts indicate different gender, status, personality or membership. For example the “pe’a” is the traditional Samoan tattoo to indicate respectful and proud men. (DeMello, 2007: 213). This category also include ‘olfactics’, since smell preferences change across cultures.

Oculesics – it is the less studied category and concerns the communication using the eyes (ex. Gazing, intensity, eye movement etc.). For example in North America is common to look into the eyes when people talk, while in Asia this is considered direspectful.


In conclusion, as shown by several examples, culture plays a fundamental role in communication. Non verbal communication can be a cultural barrier as well as language, and often it may lead to misunderstanding, especially when people are not familiar with other cultures and contexts. As stated by Jandt “culture cannot be known without a study of communication, and communication can only be understood with an understanding of the culture it supports.” (Jandt, 2010: 25).

culture in verbal and non verbal communication


 De Mello M. (2007). Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Jackson Jane (2014). Introducing language and intercultural communication. New York: Routledge.

Jandt Fred E. (2010). Intercultural communication: An introduction. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks (CA): Sage Publications Inc.


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