Body Language: Cultural or Universal?

Body Language: Cultural or Universal?

Body language and various other nonverbal cues have long been recognized as being of great importance to the facilitation of communication. There has been a long running debate as to whether body language signals and their meanings are culturally determined or whether such cues are innate and thus universal. The nature versus nurture dichotomy inherent in this debate is false; one does not preclude the other's influence. Rather researchers should seek to address the question how much of nonverbal communication is innate and how much is culturally defined? Are there any true universal nonverbal cues or just universal tendencies modified to suit cultural ideals and constraints? It is my proposal that of all forms of nonverbal communication the most universal is the communication of emotions through facial expression.

Other channels of nonverbal communication are also of great importance in many cultures. However which channels are emphasized, what cues are considered acceptable and the symbolic meaning of the cues may vary from culture to culture. Ekman and Friesen (3) undertook an important cross-cultural study to determine how easily and accurately people from various literate Western and non-Western cultures could identify the appropriate emotion term to match photographs they were shown. The photographs were of Caucasian faces posed in certain facial expressions. The terms the subjects were given to choose from were happiness, surprise, disgust, contempt, anger, fear and sadness. The result was consistent evidence of agreement across all cultures examined. In order to rule out the possibility that exposure to mass-media had taught the subjects to recognize Caucasian facial expressions Ekman and Friesen undertook a similar study among a visually isolated culture in New Guinea (1). A different methodology was used; people were shown the photographs of posed Caucasian facial expressions and were asked to make up a story about the person and the moments leading up to that image. From these stories Ekman and Friesen concluded that these subjects were able to identify the emotions accurately. The one exception was that there seemed to be some confusion between expressions of surprise and fear.

A similar experiment compared the perception of the emotions of English, Italian and Japanese performers by people from these three countries. The results were as follows: Both the English and Italian subjects could identify their own and each other's emotions but had difficulty with the Japanese. The Japanese subjects were able to identify the emotions of the English and Italians better than those groups had been able to judge the Japanese. However the Japanese subjects had difficulty determining Japanese facial expressions. This would seem to indicate that the Japanese face does not express emotion in the same manner as those of other cultures. However, another experiment (3) demonstrated different results. American and Japanese subjects were observed while watching films designed to evoke fear and disgust. During part of this observation the subjects were videotaped while watching the film alone. It was presumed that during this time no social rules would restrict the subject's display of emotion. When alone, no difference existed between the American and the Japanese subjects in the display of emotion. While watching the film with the researcher present the Japanese were more likely than the Americans to hide negative emotions with a smile.

Observation of children who were born deaf and blind show that they make the same emotional expressions (3). There is no way that these children could have learned this behavior through sensory input. Similarly, a study involving sighted babies less than six months of age has shown that they react with fear to negative faces (7). These infants were too young to have learned which faces had negative connotations. This would have to be an innate response. Different cultures define when and where it is acceptable to display certain emotions and the stimulus that triggers a certain emotion may vary from culture to culture. The facial expression of emotions seems to be a universal. There may be an evolutionary advantage to this form of communication. When people are communicating they tend to mimic one another's facial expressions. It has been shown that making a face associated with an emotional response actually causes the person to feel that emotion (2). This shared empathy seems to aid in facilitating group harmony and communicating states of mind.

While facial expressions may be universal (although subject to cultural rules) the use of the rest of the body as a communicative tool is widely varied from culture to culture. Although the body is an important channel of communication in every culture, the information that the body conveys and the manner in which it conveys it varies greatly. This is illustrated in the contrast between Japanese and Arab nonverbal communication styles. Japanese conversation involves a great deal of ritual and prescribed answers. Much of the information in an encounter is transmitted via nonverbal channels. It is important to the Japanese that emotions not be shown in public. This applies to both negative (sorrow, anger) and positive (joy) emotions, although more strongly to negative emotions. A poker face is considered ideal in public; in private a faint smile is acceptable. In most situations sorrow or displeasure must not be shown. It is preferable to mask negative feelings with a smile than display them (7). The Japanese do not look one another in the eye very often. Instead they are taught to look at the neck. In particular they avoid looking at the faces of superiors. As was shown above, Japanese have difficulty reading Japanese emotions. Because hierarchical rank is very important in Japan, people take great care to establish the correct relationship (bowing, tone of voice, etc.). Many of the rituals of Japan place emphasis on the employment of subtle and restrained nonverbal communication. In addition to the usual emphatic and illustrative gestures there are gestures, called "temane" that have arbitrary meanings and are used at a distance (6).

Arabs are also very sensitive to nonverbal behavior. They too engage in a great deal of behavior that is ritualized or socially determined; nonverbal cues clarify meaning. Tradition dictates that interactants should control their emotions and the pitch of their voice. In reality men often show powerful displays of emotion, even going so far as to tear at their clothing and scream in public (4). Interpersonal attitudes are conveyed almost entirely by nonverbal cues. Because Arabs are very concerned with their standing in the eyes of others outward appearance and honor are very important. Often little distinction is made between status and affect. Flattery, charm and other displays of interpersonal affect may be employed to manipulate others. Arabs tend to have a high sense of self-esteem which leads to an expectation of praise (5). It also often leads to exaggeration and "keeping up appearances." In conversation a pair of Arabs will look into one another's eyes more than would two Americans or Englishmen. It is considered impolite not to face someone directly when engaged in conversation.

In both examples described above, nonverbal input is critical to interpreting the true meaning of the communication; the similarity seems to end there. An Arab attempting to indicate respect by holding the gaze of a Japanese person would offend him instead. Not only do the codes that are employed vary between cultures, but the information that is conferred with these codes varies greatly as well. An Arab may indicate his emotions in a nonverbal manner during an exchange. In the same situation a Japanese man would be expected to contain indicators of his emotional status. With such differences apparent, it would seem difficult to argue for the existence of universals in body language. No universal gesture or posture indicates the same idea everywhere. However, if one looks beyond the apparent dissimilarity some patterns do become clear. Each part of the bodily communication is used for the same purposes in every culture (5). Bodily appearance always conveys information about the self - sex, age, social status, role, etc. All cultures use nonverbal cues to transmit the same range of information, primarily meaning and information about the self. Certain cultures may restrict what information should be transmitted through nonverbal cues, for example, in Japan, where nonverbal communication is expected to carry cues about status but not emotion.

Another universal pattern that seems to appear is that the meaning of both intention movements. Both are biologically innate, whereas illustrative movements or gestures are usually analogous. While some signals do acquire arbitrary meaning through historical association, such as many religious and political symbols, most bear a metaphoric relation to that which they represent. It has been shown that the facial expression of emotion does not vary cross-culturally. Physical, nonverbal cues may vary from culture to culture. Societal rules dictate what it is that we express with these cues. Most nonverbal signals obey the principles of semiotics. These principles are culturally universal and show that although the manifestation of nonverbal cues is different, cross-culturally the underlying tendency in the brain to pattern information in such a manner is the same. Nonverbal communication is neither wholly learned nor wholly innate. It is both; it is inherited impulse working within the restrictions and mores of any particular culture.


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2. "Universals and Cultural Differences in Facial Expressions of Emotion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Ekman, P. (1977).

3. "The Repertoire of Nonverbal Behavior: Categories, Origins, Usage and Coding." in Semiotica, 1, 49-98. Ekman, P. and D. Keltner. (1997).

4. "Universal Facial Expressions of Emotion: An Old Controversy and New Findings" in Nonverbal Communication: Where Nature Meets Culture. Segerstrale U. and P. Molnar (Eds). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Hottinger, A. (1963).

5. The Arabs: Their History, Culture and Place in the Modern World. London: Thames Publishing. Knapp, M. and J. Hall. (1992).

6. "Face in Japan and the United States." in The Challenge of Facework: Cross-Cultural Studies and Interpersonal Issues. Ting-Toomey, S. (Ed). Albany: State of New York Press. Richmond, V. and J. McCroskey. (1995).

7. "Face Parameters in East-West Discourse." in The Challenge of Facework: Cross-Cultural Studies and Interpersonal Issues. Ting-Toomey, S. (Ed). Albany: State of New York Press. Segerstrale, U. and P. Molnar. (1997).

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