Importance of Verbal vs. Non Verbal in Cross Cultural Communication

Last Updated: 13 Jan 2021
Essay type: Process
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Is verbal communication more important or non-verbal in cross-cultural communication? This debate has ignited the scholars all over the globe. Many theories and studies have been conductive to find their relative importance. Words are used to express whatever one wants to say but they can have different meaning and connotation across various languages, countries and cultures and therefore can be misleading. On the other hand body movements, expressions and gestures have generally the same connotations across cultures but can also contrasting meanings.

This paper will attempt to prove it through scholarly articles, authentic research and examples. In order to understand the topic and elaborate on the essay, first some key words shall be defined: Culture is defined as everything which is socially learned and shared by the members of a society. Everything in this definition includes a vast range of topics such as knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, values, ideas and many other capabilities (Horton & Hunt, 2004).

According to Lustig and Koester (1993), communication is defined as ‘symbolic, interpretive, transactional, contextual process in which people create shared meanings’. Therefore cross cultural communication or inter culture communication refers to sharing of ideas, values etc. amongst people from various cultures. This means that people from different cultures seek to understand what others communicate and what their messages signify (Reisinger, 2009). On the other hand, intra-cultural communication refers to sharing and understanding of messages of people within a culture.

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Verbal communication is the use of spoken words to convey a message whereas non-verbal communication as the movement and use of the body parts to express a message. Verbal Communication leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation: Verbal communication generally leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Mostly every culture has a different language, dialect, accent and jargon. Therefore, cultures differing in language will tend to make different sounds while speaking and sequencing of words will also vary (Reisinger, 2009).

For example, Australians pronounce the word ‘chips’ as chip i. e. exactly how it is spelt (from an Australian perspective) , however in comparison , natives of New Zealand pronounce chips as heard by an Australian as ‘chaps’. The word ‘chaps’ has a different meaning to an Australian, compared to a New Zealander and thus will lead to inappropriate communication. Also one idea or product may be described by different words across different cultures. For example what Britishers call chips, the Americans call French fries (Reisinger, 2009).

Employing translation experts in international communication is a common practice but there are many words that when translated to another language loses their real meaning (Browaeys, 2008). For example the sentence ‘My name is Lars, I live on the second floor’ when translated to German is ‘Mein Name ist, ich leben im zweiten Stock Lars’ which when translated back to English is ‘My name is, I lives in the second stick Lars’. This shows that due to translation many words can lost their meaning and communication would not be effective.

Also sometimes people can easily translate one language from the other but they do not understand the true meaning of the word used. For example, Japanese seldom use the word ‘no’ in their conversations but use ‘yes’ (hai) a lot in their conversations. Here using of ‘yes’ means that they’ve heard what has been said rather than agreeing with what has been said (Knotts & Hartman, 1991). The same words can also have different meanings in different cultures (Reisinger 2009). For example, an American electronics firm marketed a photocopy machine in Chile with the name ‘Roto’.

It was learned afterwards that ‘Roto’ means broken in Spanish (Ferraro 2010). Literature is filled with examples of global organizations with international communication blunders. The example discussed above highlights that translator knew the language but then even unintended messages were communicated to the local people. The grammatical and translation rules were followed but then even blunders were made. According to Ferraro (2010), in order to effectively communicate in international environment, there is no solution other than to learn the language.

Complexities of Non-Verbal Communication: According to a study, only seven percent of communicated meaning is from verbal communication, the rest is from non verbal communication. This factor highlights the importance of using non-verbal cues in successful communication (Shick, 2000). Many facial expressions such as anger, fear, happiness etc. are universal. Therefore many people believe that non-verbal cues are excellent source of communicating internationally. The facial expressions must be same but the cause of these expressions may vary from culture to culture.

Also many gestures and body movements have different meanings across different cultures (chapter 14). For example, in France firm handshakes are considered to be impolite whereas in Brazil handshakes are firm and exuberant. In order to give emphasis, Italians and Israelis use hand gestures a lot whereas Chinese do not use gestures at all (Shick, 2000). Silence is also a form of non verbal communication (Shick, 2000). In some cultures using verbal communication is more important than using non-verbal communication. Western cultures use direct words and explicit meaning that show true intentions and desires.

While in East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and China, an indirect style of verbal communication is used and they instead resort to non-verbal signal. Asians emphasize silence over words whereas Americans believe words are very important. Western cultures places due emphasis on choosing words appropriately whereas in eastern culture people believe that silence is a form of communication. They communicate by saying as less as possible and at times nothing as well. The meaning is in silence or saying as little as possible (Reisinger 2009).

Culture variations exist regarding ‘touching’ in personal interaction. In Middle East and Latin America people prefer high physical contact while people in Northern Europe and America prefer low physical contact. Culture also differs as to where people can be touched. For example in China and many western countries, shaking hands among opposite gender is a norm whereas in Muslim countries it is not (Reisinger, 2009). Therefore in inter cultural communication it is important to understand the meaning of each gesture before using it. The same gesture can have very contrasting meanings across cultures.

For example, pulling one’s eyelid with forefinger in France means, ‘I don’t believe you’ whereas in Italy it means ‘I’m keeping an eye on you’. Conclusion: Verbal and non verbal both have their pros and cons. The positives of one can translate into the negatives of the other. Therefore, excellence in both verbal and non verbal communication is required foe effective cross cultural communication. In this era of globalization, no business can sacrifice on inappropriate communication. Even if one universal language is used throughout cultures then even dialects and accents would vary which will lead to misinterpretation.

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Importance of Verbal vs. Non Verbal in Cross Cultural Communication. (2016, Oct 03). Retrieved from

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