The Culture of Body Language

Body language (a.k.a. non-verbal communication) is one of the most powerful social forms of expression in the world. However, the use of body language is not standardized globally, but locally – such as to a particular country, continent or region. The use of body language is one of the most variable forms of expression in the world, just as spoken and written languages are.

Take insults, for example. You know, forms of communication that say, “in your face, jerk!” Aussies (citizens of Australia) often extend the thumb as if to say yes (our meaning, not theirs – as in thumbs up from Roger Ebert), except as if to mean to say “you idiot!” Meanwhile, in North America, we give offensive people the middle finger because it looks like a certain male body part when formed with our hands. Other cultures ma insult people with the finger-thumb zero sign (which we see as “A-OK” here), a v-shape formed with the first two fingers after the thumb (we call that the “victory sign”) or the index finger and the small little finger all the way back from the thumb.

Another common gesture people can mix up in different countries is the “he is acting like he is crazy” motion. In North America, we point to our heads and swirl our fingers clockwise to indicate such inferior unintelligent behavior. If you do that in Japan, however, you make it look to locals as if you mean otherwise (as if he is thinking intelligently). However, reversing the motion DOES indicate to a man native to, say, Tokyo or Nagasaki, that he should correct his behavior to correct standards. The point is clear: different cultures call for different body language standards.

In addition, it is not just our fingers doing the talking – hand-clasping motions also have many variations. Here in North America, we frequently extend our left hand in greeting and shake when accepted; other cultures may do little more than “touch palms” and leave it at that. In some cases people use hand shaking not as a greeting, but as a bargaining tool in which hands shake between people doing business until a deal is reached.

It has been determined that children always seem to learn to “gesture before they learn to speak – sighted children more frequently than blind children [do],” according to Jana Iverson of the University of Missouri (Psychology Today, 2000). Iverson’s explanation in the November 2000 issue of Psychology Today also states, “Hand gestures appear to supplement words, allowing people to express themselves more thoroughly and clearly. They ‘tell us something about the way we think,’ and that ‘there are aspects of our thinking that are more imagistic. Gestures give us a way to communicate those aspects of our thoughts that can’t very well be put into words.'”

Facial clues, or expressions that show up on a person’s face, are also a common form of body language. A smile usually indicates happiness, while a frown conveys sad feelings. A sly smirk can come off as sarcastic, while a tense facial expression can convey anger or frustration. Sometimes a simple wink, or a sly look when a person pauses, lets somebody know when there is something to hide.

Another quality of body language is that in cases where a person has lost the ability to communicate verbally, their interpretation of such non-verbal forms of communication is often improved. This can happen, for example, in persons who have received damage to their brains in head injuries. According to neurophysiologist Nancy L. Etcoff of Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown et al, “Damage to brain areas underlying language comprehension may prompt neural growth in regions used to recognize facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.” (Science News, 2000)

Etcoff’s research alongside her colleagues “examined 10 patients in whom brain damage had blocked much language understanding, 10 brain-damaged individuals with no language problems, and 58 healthy adults. Participants watched a videotape in which people first tried to conceal strong negative emotions and then honestly revealed positive emotions.” Their findings, also published in the journal Nature, showed that “Language-impaired participants identified the liars substantially more often than members of the other groups did.” (Science News, 2000)

Body language is indeed a powerful and useful form of communication with many forms and interpretations. How one uses body language, and how another person interprets it, is one of the most intriguing parts of any society.

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