Cultural Differences and Kinesics Essay Example
Cultural Differences and Kinesics Essay Example

Cultural Differences and Kinesics Essay Example

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Upon hearing the word “Nonverbal Communication”, one foremost thing that comes into people’s mind is an image of someone who is unable to hear or cannot speak and has learned to communicate through sign language or other nonverbal means of communication. Research shows that, most people are not aware that in real sense, about 25% of communications in daily conversations are actually nonverbal (Krauss et al, 1996). Talking using body movements and gestures can generate many meanings depending on the context.

Understanding the meanings conveyed through gestures and body movements are important as the two methods do bear the true feelings attached to spoken words. Kinesics entails the study of the impact body movements and gestures can have on communication (Richmond et al, 2012). Since non-verbal communication has various functions such as complementing, contradicting and regulating, Kinesics behaviors such as gestures, fa


cial expressions and body movements expresses various meanings meant to serve such functions.

Although a lot of research has focused on kinesics behaviors from different perspectives, many scholars today tend to agree that the study of such behaviors without giving due respect to their underlying contexts is practically meaningless and virtually inappropriate. In essence, it is only within a given cultural context that a particular body movement can symbolize a message. Therefore, apart from the contextual framework that dictates the meanings to a particular body motion, other factors such as culture and geographical orientation also contribute to the understanding of those meanings.

However, due to cultural differences, misunderstandings can arise when people from different cultural backgrounds communicate using body movements and gestures. This paper therefore, focuses on cultural differences and kinesics. The first section addresses culture an

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kinesics and how kinesics can be a barrier in different situations. The second section addresses understanding kinesics in different cultures with an emphasis on body language in different cultures. Body language is further detailed by including gestures, facial expression, head movements postures, and eye contact. Both sections describe applicable terms and articulate cultural differences in kinesics.

Culture and Kinesics

Communication and culture cannot be separated because individuals learn and uphold culture through human communication. The study of kinesics refers to the pattern of a body movement in human interaction (Birdwhistell, 2010). Kinesics involves nonverbal behaviors such as body orientation, body position, facial expressions, eye contact and gestures. According to Birdwhistell (2010), an individual’s kinesics pattern such as gesturing and walking may be as a result of dynamic combination of personality and culture. Culture agrees on body language and each and every body movement and gestures advocate’s different meaning in differing cultures. Bidwhistell argued that “body language” may be similar to “spoken language” in his earlier work (Birdwhistell, 2010). The way in which a person speaks, walks, and stands expresses itself. Most kinesics behavior happens with the entire context of speech at any one moment of utterance.

Birdwhistell (2010) argues that, one may notice a separate variation during interaction across cultures in postural demands, for instance, bowing before elders and shaking hands shows respect in some cultures while in others, respect is portrayed by sitting at the elders’ feet. In the same way, Italians use extended arm-gestures to talk while the Jews use movements nearer to the body thus interpreting kinesics communication behavior can bring about misunderstanding. In many Hispanic cultures, pointing using index finger is considered to be

impolite while it may be perfectly acceptable in other cultures (Grunlan &Mayers, 1988).

In North American culture, saying goodbye involves placing the right palm downwards then moving the palm from side to side. In West Africa, Central America and Indian culture, such gestures suggest a sign. Folding of hands, walking, eye contact and sitting in presence of others shows different kinesics behavior. For instance, a person in Indonesia talking while sitting on the floor with good care taken not to point the soles of one’s feet towards others is considered offensive. Anglo-American culture depends more on eye contact to show concentration or interference whereas in African American culture, close immediacy shows attentiveness.

While communicating across cultures, one should observe and understand the other cultures kinesics (Bitti & Garotti 2011). It is good to note that some aspects of body communication mean the same in all cultures because of their distinctiveness or as a result of human experiences. However, many kinesics symbols have meanings that differ across cultures.

Potential Issues

Communication barriers that may arise not only involve failure to understand the words but also understanding the nonverbal signs such as gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions (Shi & Fan, 2010). For instance an Anglo interviewer may assume that nonverbal behaviors are universal and convey the same meaning to everyone ignoring cultural differences inherent in use and interpretation of nonverbal symbols. Communication failures may happen when people of different cultural backgrounds employ position, postures and expression which convey such failures. People who use many gestures, many words and loud voices signify assertiveness in formal situations like interviews.

Shi (2010) asserts that Anglo-American females and some culturally varied people hold analogous communication

features that separate them from the Anglo-American males. Most people entering the U.S labor force come from high background cultures, yet most organization affiliates come from low background cultures. By generating a fair interview procedure, employees can determine a wealth of competent candidates from every cultural background.
Kinesics is one of some indicators of mood, purpose and meaning. It bears exact meaning that is open to cultural understanding. Explicitly, this section will outline the use of head movements and postures, eye contact, gestures and facial expressions as nonverbal communication body movements in different cultures.


The main types of gestures used in different cultures are emblems, adaptors, affective display and illustrators. What seems to be the same gesture can have completely different meaning in different cultural settings.

  1. Emblems – These are gestures that have an explicit meaning. Examples of emblems that have agreed on meanings across cultures are thumb and index fingers of one hand put together. This gesture has survived many years and is used in most of western cultures where it means perfect but in some countries, it has completely different meanings. (Kitao & Kitao, 1997). Misinterpretation of emblems meanings can lead to devastating cultural encounters for instance, in Brazil and German, the thumb and index fingers put together in one hand gesture is considered a very obscene gesture while in Japan, this gesture means money and in France, it usually means useless or zero. Emblems can be silent or in motion. For example, rotating the index finger around at the side of the head can mean that someone is mad whereas rolling hands over and over can simply mean ‘move on’ mostly in western culture.
  • Adaptors-These are touching behaviors and actions that show inner states usually associated to nervousness or stimulation. Adaptors can be targeted towards the object, personality or others. Adaptors occur as a result of nervousness, discomfort, or a broad sense that people are not in control of their environment (Bitti & Garotti, 2011). In a public speaking situation, people usually use self or object focused adaptors. Some self-adaptors manifest internally for example throat clearing and cough sounds. Adaptors may not convey any important meaning in their own culture or across cultural boundaries. However, they may easily be seen as emblems across cultural borders (Kitao & Kitao, 1997). For example, displaying the sole of feet may be as a result of taking up a more comfortable seating position; however, in Arabic culture this type of gesture would be considered an insult.
  • Illustrators- These are the most frequent types of gestures that are used to demonstrate the verbal message they go along with. For example, one may use hand gesture to designate the size or shape of an object. Illustrators do not normally have meaning on their own unlike emblems and are frequently used more subconsciously than emblems (McDaniel, 1993). The practice of and quantity of illustrators used varies in different in different cultures. In Asian cultures, widespread use of illustrators is frequently understood as lack of intelligence. In Latin cultures, on the other hand the nonappearance of illustrator shows lack of interest (Vogelaar, 2002).
  • Affective Displays-These are movements, typically facial gestures exhibiting exact emotions for example the expression of love, anger or frustration. Vogelaar (2002) argues that cultural understandings determine what is well thought-out to be tolerable behavior.
  • Across all cultures, holding hands, kissing, hugging etc. is a nonverbal communicator of love whereas frowning or making a mean face is an expression of frustration or anger.

    Head Movements and Postures

    According to (Bulusu, 1998), head movements and postures are often both used to recognize others and communicate attentiveness or welfare. A head nod is a common sign of recognition in cultures in which the official bow is no longer used as a salutation. Head nods basically serves as an abridged bow in this case. Another common head movement is the headshake left and right to indicate ‘no’. For example, babies shake their head from side to side to refuse food and later shake their head to refuse attempts to spoon feed. People also move their heads to signal interest. For example a head tilt that exposes the neck usually signifies interest and a head down signals a regressive attitude in some cultures (Bulusu, 1998). Most of the cultures in Middle Eastern, the head movement for ‘yes’ is just the reverse of the head movement for ‘yes’ in almost any other culture. Bulusu (1998) asserts that these differences can lead to great misunderstandings when people from different culture are conducting business and they lack knowledge on differences in nonverbal communication.

    Eye Contact

    While eye behaviors are frequently studied under the class of kinesics, they separately have a division of nonverbal studies known as oculesics. (Morain & Eric, 2007), According to Eric (2007), the face and the eyes are the main point of focus while communicating and alongside with the ears, the eyes take in the largest part of the communicative information within.

    Staring at another person in some cultures

    can communicate intimidation while in other situation can communicate flirtation. Eye contact can also be used to indicate that one does not want to get in contact with others (Morain & Eric, 2007), for example, in a public setting where people usually make small talk, one can avoid making eye contact with others indicating that they do not want to get into small talks with unfamiliar persons. When speaking in public, looking at the audience is a usual practice in most cultures (Kitao & Kitao, 1997).

    In China and Western culture, looking at somebody while listening is a sign of respect. Interacting with one another requires good eye contact even though it doesn’t have to be continuous. Kitao & Kitao (1997) affirm that not looking at another person could suggest nervousness, anxiety, guilt or indifference. In American culture, not looking the other person in the eye is a mark of disregard and may even look suspicious. On the contrary, other cultures, like Asian, prolonged eye contact is known to be offensive and should be evaded at all cost. In western cultures, eyes are well-thought-out to show the dominant point of a person’s attention. Therefore, if a person doesn’t engage in any eye contact in a talk, it may be considered rude.

    In western cultures, Strong eye contact particularly in official situations like interviews in western culture is perceived as a sign of self-belief whereas lack of eye contact is perceived as lack of self-assurance (Christopher, 2012). Westerners’ use of eye culture can be considered unsuitable and even discourteous in many other cultures. In Muslim culture, anything more than brief eye contact is considered unsuitable (Christopher, 2012. In

    some cultures, a woman should look down when talking to a man as a sign of respect. Western culture considers eye contact to be a good gesture, it indicates confidence and trustworthiness. Also Gazing at a person is considered impolite in some cultures (Morain & Eric 2007).

    Facial Expressions

    Faces are the utmost communicative part of human bodies. Considerable research has reinforced the universality of a fundamental group of facial expressions. While there have been found to be insignificant disparities and variances among inexplicably remote tribes-people, the following basic human emotions are usually recognized as part of human categories hereditary character (Vogelaar, 2002). The emotional face expression include: grief, cheerfulness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. However, the causes for these expressions, cultural and social customs that influence their displays are still customarily varied as suggested by Shi & Fan (2010). There are also some variances between groups in terms of emotional expression in societies. In most cultures, women are expected to show their emotions while men are expected to regulate their emotions. A crying girl is more endured than a crying boy. A boy child is told to be brave and to control his emotions. Facial expressions are known to be the same all over the world, but individuals from different cultures may differ.

    According to von & and, (2008), a smile has very different meanings across cultures. In America, people smile freely to unfamiliar people while in Russia, this is considered indecorous. In Asian culture, a smile does not mean friendliness but can be used to show discomfort whereas in North American culture, people smile to show friendliness. In Northern European, people smile while they actually feel

    happy. Von Rafefer (2008) argues that focal emotions are articulated frequently in certain cultural settings. For instance, Russians and Americans express both pleasure and anger more openly than the Japanese. The greater expression of happiness in United States is connected to the cultural value emphasis on pleasure.


    In conclusion, studies have strongly emphasized on the importance of kinesics in today’s world as well as its usage across different cultures. Essentially, research gives a true picture on how kinesics can improve or substitute verbal communication, establish relationships, create boundaries and reflect diverse cultural values. Contrary to what it may look like, it is less candid to empirically establish if a particular behavior serves a communicative purpose. For this reason, most of the research adopts an interpretive approach that involves a careful observation of gestures in relation to the associated speech so as to understand the meaning and its communicative significance. This approach is one of the best as it strongly yields valuable insights as well as helping to discern some of the goals the researchers would want to achieve. However, a point of weakness with this approach is such that it relies heavily on the researcher’s own intuitions and therefore the results could be misleading due to lack of independence while substantiating the inferences from the observer.

    Information on the growing importance in understanding kinesics and how culture affects nonverbal communication is increasingly important in an ever-shrinking world filled with cross-cultural conflicts. It is important for a good understanding of others, particularly in culturally diverse settings, to properly understand kinesics of others and monitor one’s own. Future research may use a larger number of raters who have great

    skills to identify different kinesics features in their subject performance before commencement of studies. Kinesics has greatly emphasized on the description and the analysis of body movements and position.

    However, as research continues to gain emphasis from cross-cultural studies, it would have to pay more attention to other body related human attributes. Moreover, Research needs to continue gaining information on nonverbal communication so that individuals can learn to become better communicator. A fundamental awareness of kinesics approaches can help advance interaction with others. The knowledge of these signs can be used to inspire people to talk about their fears and can lead to a better intercultural understanding which is the main aim of communication.


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