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Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2981 words Published: 11th Jul 2018

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Physical appearance plays an important part in non-verbal communication. It “encompasses all of the physical characteristics of an individual, including body size , skin color , hair color and style , facial hair, and facial features”. Physical appearance “is readily observed and reveals many aspects of psychosocial function” [2]. A person’s physical appearance reveals a great deal about that person. For that reason one needs to take care of his/her look prior to participating in oral communication, especially in business setting. For instance, a clean, neat, appropriately dressed individual conveys a positive self-image, knowledge and competence. A dirty, careless or inappropriately dressed person conveys the message that he does not care about his or her look [3].

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The presence of body odor, poor hygiene, and badly dressed clothing may be associated with any of the following: depression, incompetence, impaired cognitive abilities, limited financial recourses, overwhelming care giving responsibilities, impaired vision or smell, or deficiency in access to or inability to use bathing facilities [4]. Physical appearance includes physiological characteristics, such as eye color and height, as well as ways in which we manage, or even alter, our physical appearance. For instance, many people control their physical appearance by dieting, using steroids and other drugs, coloring their hair, having plastic surgery, wearing colored contact lenses, and using make-up [5]. Physical appearance has an influence on communication since one evaluates others in interpersonal exchanges [6]. Based on physical qualities one may make inferences about others’ personalities. Although these inferences may have no factual basis, they can affect one’s personal and social relationships as well as decisions about hiring, placement, and promotion [7]. It is crucial since the first impression made during interaction lasts long. For instance, if a young intelligent man who graduated from the university with distinction and wants to get a job. However, every time he would come to a job interview, he would get rejected by potential employers who would reason he doesn’t suit them. The real issue behind those rejections would be that he has a problem with the smell that comes out of his mouth.

Besides problems with the smell of the body, the color of one’s skin can also influence the outcome of communication and affect communication process. For instance, certain individuals will not communicate with persons who are of a particular race or ethnicity. [8] In such cases, communication will be difficult to realize, since it is a matter of choice that is already made by that person who prefers avoiding interracial communication and his opinion would be difficult to alter. There was a situation in Russia when an eleven year old school girl from Poland refused to play with a boy from Nigeria because he was black Another situation occurred in the daycare center in the USA where a small boy would not let Afro-American staff touch him as they looked “dirty” to him. Neither would he want to play with children of that race [9].

Different cultures have different values of physical appearance. For instance, “Western culture places an extremely high value on physical appearance and on specific aspects of appearance” [10]. Consequently, miscommunication may occur when a person with an inappropriate appearance from a different culture will attempt to conduct a conversation with a person from Western culture, who will perceive him or her incorrectly.

The traditional African societies perceive full-figured bodies as signs of health, prosperity, and wealth, all of which are considered necessary. African Americans who support this value acknowledge or prefer women who weigh more than the ideal model for European American women or Caucasians [11]. During intercultural communication, people will perceive each other differently and will demonstrate an attitude that they usually do in their culture. Improper usage of physical appearance in intercultural communication and setting such as a religious institution or a corporation may result in miscommunication or even violence. Hence, one needs to adjust his/her look to a setting in which s/he will interact in the hosting culture. However, paying attention only to how one looks would be insufficient if one has problems with bad smell.


Another aspect of the oral communication is odor of a communicator. As mentioned before, the interaction with a person who has bad smell can be the cause of failure to obtain a job. Olfactics is the study of communication via smell which is the least understood of all senses [12] and refers to the use and perception of smell as related to communication [13]. Smell is a code that is almost exclusively nonverbal [14]. It is a term for odors and scents as well as our perception of them [15]. Smell is a very strong signal to most people, closely connected in many set of circumstances to strong emotions [16].

The amount of human brain devoted to olfaction is a very large portion. Odor is first detected by the olfactory epithelium in the nose, which starts a chain of events that leads to an information flow to olfactory bulb and limbic system of the brain, which pays a key role in regulating body functions and the emotions. Smell is the only sense linked directly into the limbic system, which may be evidence of its being our most basic, primitive sense [17]. A tiny organ in the nasal cavity that responds to chemicals such as pheromones and natural substances plays a role in basic human emotions such as fear, hunger, and those which are related to sex [18]. Smells are almost constantly processed in a holistic manner [19].

Most smells activate olfactory responses but there is a difference in perception of smell based on gender. Women can detect odors in lower concentrations, identify them more accurately, and remember them longer than men [20]. Heterosexual men and women respond to the pheromones of the opposite sex with increased activity in the hypothalamus connected to sexual behavior. Lesbians respond with elevated hypothalamic activity to the estrogen -like pheromone of other women [21].

It is possible to recall an event that occurred months or years ago when similar smells encountered again smell as such – smells are a powerful memory aid [22]. Hence the first impression lasts longer and that is why it needs to be good, which is why people use perfumes, soaps, and body deodorants to convey a particular image to others or to cover up natural odor which is related to hormones and DNA structures and is too a part of the olfatic code [23].

There are many ways in which smell is applied. One of them is in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the application of oils of flowers, herbs, and plants to make people feel better, which was widely practiced in ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian civilizations and is widely applied today in Belgium, England, France, Germany, and Switzerland. Besides, fragrance is used in the workplace in Japan in order to enhance efficiency and reduce stress among office workers [24].

Another application of smell is in marketing because advertisers believe that smell is important. For instance, Mike Gatti, the executive director of marketing at the National Retail Federation stated: “A lot of retail companies use it, and its purpose really is to keep customers in your store, to create this welcoming environment and it works; it does keep people in your store longer. It helps people feel better in their shopping, and in a lot of cases causes them to spend more money.” [25] “Fragrance strips in magazines enable consumers to sample a perfume.” [26] In other words, smell is used as a method of persuasion in mass communication.

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Likewise, smell refers to body odor. Certain cultures are sensitive to any body odor; others conceal body odor with perfumes and colognes; and still others find the odor of perfumes and colognes unpleasant. Generally, body odor is affected by the food one eats; interesting enough, those who eat meat have a different body odor [27]. Since Attitudes to body odor vary considerably across cultures, they can sometimes cause problems [28]. People will react positively or negatively to other people based on the way they smell. A person’s smell remains in another person’s long after he or she has left the room. For instance, citizens from the United States consider body odors, bad breath, perspiration, or too much cologne to be offensive. In turn, as clean as US inhabitants think they are, many cultures consider their smell offensive. Because people of the United States eat much more meat than people in many other countries, their body odor is different from those who are from other countries in which more vegetables and fish are consumed. Japanese and Filipinos are raised to be very conscious of different odors and often complain about the way US Americans smell. Although U.S inhabitants tend to be uncomfortable with natural smells, Middle Easterners and Filipinos believe being able to smell a friend’s breath is pleasing. Without knowing how culture perceives odors and how one is expected to react to odors, one is not able to behave appropriately in business environment. Lack of knowledge in the olfactics area has affected many business transaction [29]. Here is an example how smell can affect someone’s career in intercultural communication:

A medical doctor from Saudi Arabia was completing an internship in a hospital in the southern United States. Problems arose when patients refused to have the Saudi doctor examine them. Interviews with patients revealed two problems: he ‘smelled bad’ and he breathed on the patients. The doctor’s orientation had apparently failed to include the incongruence between Arabic and U.S American perceptions of smell. [30] 

In order to be accepted by people from other cultures, an individual needs to adopt the hygiene practices of the country he is visiting or in which he is conducting business [31] . Unfortunately, that medical doctor, being in the US, was proficient only in English and Medicine. He didn’t have sufficient communicative competence to avoid the misunderstanding described above.


Besides smell, there is a need to take a look at another aspect of communication that leads people into misperception of each other – proxemics. It is the study of personal space and how humans use distance in general. This term was first used in 1963 by an anthropologist and researcher Edward T. Hall [32]. Proxemics relates to spatial distance between persons interacting with each other, and their orientation toward each other. Individuals generally divide their personal space into four distinct zones. Edward Hall identified four spatial zones:

  • Intimate space 0- 1, 5 feet. For family members and beloved.
  • Personal space 1, 5-4 feet. For friends.
  • Social space 4-12 feet. For strangers.
  • Public space 12 feet-and more [33].

Proxemics is nonverbal communication that deals with physical distance between people. When someone moves into intimate space with another person who does not want to be intimate with him/her, that person, whose personal space is trespassed, is likely to become uncomfortable and put up barriers. This situation is also known as invading the person’s space. People who feel that their space has been violated will step back or cross their arms. However, if an individual stays within the social space zone with a close friend who prefers to be in his personal or intimate space, this may result in negative feelings [34].

Proxemics is the communicative aspect of personal space and or territory. Everyone is believed to be encircled by an invisible zone of psychological comfort that follows us everywhere we travel. That invisible zone provides persons with a lot of nonverbal information regarding the level of trust and intimacy that an individual has for other people. Cooperation is a key factor in the street negotiation and its participant must be able to read the level of comfort of the person s/he is dealing with and must take into consideration the amount of distance that an individual needs to be comfortable while being dealt with. Knowing the dynamics of personal space will also prevent one party of the interaction from unknowingly violating their counterparts’ personal space and causing unnecessary tension.

Distance between people depends on power and authority that a person has. People who possess the most power and authority command a greater amount of personal space that they can entitle as their own. They will often distance themselves from other people of less power around them. Confident people, and people of higher status, are comfortable going straight to the center of the attention while lower status, or non-confident people, to tend to have near the exits or the back of the room [35].

The comfort zones vary drastically between cultures. Arabs and Americans differed significantly in proxemics, the Arabs interacting with each other closer and more directly than Americans. The differences in distance between subjects from different Arab regions were smaller than those in different American regions. Arabs interact much closer to each other. Latin Americans exhibit less closeness than Arabs, but still interact much closer than Anglo Americans. Interactants stand farther apart and the frequency of tactile contact diminishes as one goes from Central to South America.


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