Nonverbal Communication : Different Cultures, Different Meanings for Project Teams

Nonverbal Communication : Different Cultures, Different Meanings for Project Teams
Page content

Nonverbal Communication Carries More Meaning than Words

Nonverbal communication might look nonessential for humans – who needs to communicate nonverbally, when we have words to express our thoughts? We do have words; however, as it turns out, we still convey most of the meaning via nonverbal methods. What is more, many nonverbal expressions we consider to be fine in our culture can get us into trouble in other parts of the world or when working with people from other countries at home.

Nonverbal Communication: Different Cultures, Typical Differences

Nonverbal communication can be divided into several categories. According to The Provider’s Guide to Quality and Culture these

categories are: facial expressions, head movements, hand and arm gestures, physical space, touching, eye contact, and physical postures. Here are some noteworthy examples in each of the categories:

Facial Expressions

A smile is one of the most common examples of a facial expression in different cultures. While Americans smile freely at strangers, in Russia this is considered strange and even impolite. In Asian cultures a smile isn’t necessarily an expression of joy and friendliness but it can be used to convey pain and embarrassment. For many Scandinavians a smile or any facial expression used to convey emotions is untypical because it is considered a weakness to show emotions.

Head Movements

In many cultures in the Middle East and Bulgaria, the head movement for “Yes” is just the opposite of the head movement for “Yes” in almost any other culture. You can imagine how confusing it can be to see that somebody is all smiles but his or her head movement means “No” to you. In such cases saying “Yes” or “No” with words is enough to avoid confusion.

Hand and Arm Gestures

Hand and arm gestures as a form of nonverbal communication also vary widely among cultures. While in some cases a particular gesture means nothing to a representative of another culture, in other cases–for instance the “thumbs up” gesture or the “OK sign”–have vulgar meanings in Iran and Latin America, respectively. Yet in other countries the “OK" sign means just “zero”, which is not offensive.

Physical Space

The acceptable physical distance is another major difference in the nonverbal communication between cultures. In Latin America and the Middle East the acceptable distance is much shorter than what most Europeans and Americans feel comfortable with. This is why an American or an European might wonder why the other person is invading his or her personal space by standing so close, while the other person might wonder why the American/European is standing so far from him or her (are they trying to run away or what?).


Handshakes are usually acceptable almost everywhere, even between strangers; however, kissing on the cheek, patting on the shoulder, embraces, or touching other bodily parts aren’t – for many people in Asia and other parts of the world such actions are interpreted as an offense or even a violation of one’s private space. This is why you should avoid touching.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is one of the forms of nonverbal communication where the differences are most striking. In America and Latin America not looking the other person in the eye is a sign of disrespect and it might even look suspicious (“he or she doesn’t dare to look me in the eye, so he or she is hiding something”). In other cultures, i.e. Asian cultures, prolonged eye contact is especially offensive, so you should avoid it at all costs.

Physical Postures

Physical postures are also quite of a difference between cultures. The most common example is the habit of many American executives to rest with their feet on their desk, which in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe is considered highly offensive.

As you see, the differences in nonverbal communication between cultures are pretty striking. This means that when you need to communicate with people from different cultures, it makes sense to learn in advance about their nonverbal communication. This can save you a lot of embarrassment and misunderstanding. Of course, cultural stereotypes are just stereotypes, and you can’t say that every single individual from a different culture exhibits the same forms of nonverbal communication. Still, even individuals with a lot of international experience continue to carry some or many of the signs of their culture of origin.

Image Credit: Thumbs Up by Stefano Valle,