The other day, a colleague shared this story with me: It was time for a business meeting, so she went to the conference room and sat at the table. A couple of minutes later, one of her peers walked in, took one look at the room, and said to her: “Still mad at me, huh?” Her response was direct: “Yep.”

How did he know she was angry? She had bypassed her usual seat and chosen one as far as possible from where he usually sat. Talk about the power of non-verbal communication! Of course, in this case the communication was facilitated by common cultural context and the fact that they knew each other well. But even strangers who share the same cultural framework can readily understand non-verbal communication: Two Polynesians will recognize a tongue sticking out as a greeting.

When it comes to non-verbal intercultural communication, though, you begin to appreciate the crucial role that cultural framework plays. What’s seen as a hello in Polynesia will be understood quite differently almost everywhere else in the world. And there’s the rub: Although non-verbal communication happens in every culture, the specifics of what’s being communicated – and the role it plays in the conversation – varies widely across different cultures.

In other words, anyone doing business in multiple cultures has many opportunities to unwittingly confuse or offend others without uttering a word.

To fully appreciate just how many opportunities you have to get non-verbal intercultural communication wrong, consider this: UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, who has devoted his career to studying non-verbal communication, has demonstrated that only about 7% of communication consists of the actual content of the exchange; the rest is non-verbal.

If it surprises you that language represents such a small portion of communication, consider the four primary purposes of non-verbal communication:

  • To accent the meaning of words (as when using your hand to indicate how tall something is);
  • To complement or contradict the words used (as when you smile sweetly while saying something less than kind);
  • To regulate conversation (such as using non-verbal cues to indicate when it’s appropriate for someone to speak);
  • To substitute for words (as when nodding instead of saying “yes”);

Those purposes transcend cultures (people everywhere will replace words with gestures, for example), but their relative importance – and their specific meaning – may not.

Let’s start with what the experts call “context,” because if your business requires effective intercultural communication it’s vital to first know whether you’re working with people in a “high-context” or “low-context” culture. Those labels describe broad cultural perspectives shaped by the importance attached to the information that surrounds an event as opposed to the event itself.

Non-verbal communication is much more important – and therefore more nuanced – in high-context cultures. In those cultures, communication is more successful when it flows from deep cultural knowledge. Much meaning is conveyed through context, including considerations such as social hierarchy and how close a relationship those speaking have to one another. Therefore, communication is generally orderly, with people taking their proper turn to speak. When they do speak, it’s often indirect and understated. Harmony is valued, so conflict is avoided. Knowing that, it’s clear why non-verbal communication is important – if the words are indirect, people must rely on other cues to get the full meaning. Examples of high-context cultures include those of Japan, Greece, and most Arab countries.

In contrast, non-verbal communication is less important in low-context cultures because words are paramount – most of the meaning is expressed directly. With that understanding, you won’t be surprised that communication is direct, conflict is tolerated and hierarchies are less rigid. Low-context cultures include those of Australia, Scandinavia and Canada.

Finally, it’s important to know that between these highs and lows is a third group, often referred to as multi-active, that include elements of both high-context and low-context cultures. This group includes Italy, Spain and most Latin American countries. There, conversation is more direct than in high-context cultures but less so than in low-context cultures.

I’m sure that those with extensive cross-cultural communication experience can already hear the caveats: None of the three different types of cultures is better than another, and not every person within any culture is necessarily 100% representative. We are, ultimately, individuals. But understanding the cultural framework certainly can help us be better intercultural communicators: it makes us more aware, prompts us to ask the right questions, and challenges our assumptions.

One of those assumptions may be what, exactly, constitutes non-verbal communication; it was for me. I initially thought it is limited largely to facial expressions and body language. It turns out there’s much more to it. The forms of non-verbal communication include:

  • Eye contact. Things to consider relative to eye contact include whether it is acceptable at all and, if it is, who makes it and for how long. Avoiding eye contact is seen as a sign of respect in many Asian cultures but making eye contact is seen as vital affirmation of equality in North America.
  • Touch. Our comfort with being touched may be highly personal, but there also are cultural norms as to when, how and where it is acceptable. A kiss on both cheeks is a standard greeting in France but would be seen as too intimate in many other cultures.
  • Gestures. Every culture has a vocabulary of common gestures, but that vocabulary is very different from one culture to another. In fact, what may be a friendly gesture in one culture may be actively offensive in another. Don’t assume any gesture is “safe” – or that you understand what it conveys; find out for sure. The gesture that means “OK” in the United States communicates money in Japan, zero in Argentina and in Russia it’s a crude insult.
  • Personal space. How much space we believe we “own” around us, and therefore what we tolerate in terms of others intruding into that space, is part of non-verbal communication. This can be particularly important during one-on-one conversation. The close proximity that’s the norm in most Middle Eastern cultures will be experienced as aggressive in Canada.
  • Facial expressions are more than simply just expressions of emotion (such as surprise or disgust). They also include actions intended to communicate something specific, such as a wink. (In Latin America, a wink is seen as romantic or even sexual; in China it’s seen as rude.) And, of course, they include the one example of non-verbal communication that may truly be universal: the smile.
  • Posture isn’t something we always think about, let alone consider an active form of non-verbal communication. Nonetheless, in some cultures it’s exactly that. In Taiwan, slouching is a sign of disrespect. And the positions of our bodies are understood differently, as well. In Arab cultures, sitting with a leg crossed so that an ankle rests on the opposite knee is seen as rude because it reveals the bottom of a shoe, which is regarded as dirty. And sitting with crossed legs in any style is offensive in Ghana.
  • Paralanguage includes such factors as pitch, tone, accent and volume – all things that can dramatically enhance (or alter) the meaning of the words used. In the United Kingdom, for example, increased volume communicates anger, while in India it is used to command attention.

There are many other examples of each form. If you worried about how everything you do might convey an unintended message, the result might be social paralysis. That wouldn’t be helpful to anyone. A better approach is to maintain an open mind and, if you will be doing business across cultures, to invest in intercultural communication training before you do so.

If you agree that would be a good thing to do, please nod your head – unless you’re in Bulgaria, where nodding indicates you disagree!