Fifty-five percent of what we say is based upon how we look, thirty-eight percent from how we say things, and only seven percent from what we actually say.
The human body can display about 270,000 discrete gestures and assume over 1,000 different postures.
Although many people think that body language is the same around the world, nothing could be further from the truth. While there are some nonverbal signs that are universal, most of them are indigenous to a specific culture. Because body language is portable, people who move from one culture to another bring their body language with them.
While some forms of body language remain unchanged for centuries, many undergo some degree of change or disappear entirely.
American tourists, traveling in Europe or Asia, are often convinced that if they speak clearly and distinctly, they will be understood. They soon discover that there is much more to communication than words.
One expert reminded us that, “We respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.” He expressed this opinion sixty years ago. Since then, we know a great deal more about how our body language reveals who and what we are.
Here are some interesting examples of cross-cultural body language. Some will amaze and possibly surprise you.
• Indian women used to show deference by uncovering the upper half of their body. Today, such behavior would be interpreted as a sign of neurotic or psychotic exhibitionism.
• When foreign films were shown to American audiences, the dialogue underwent a process known as “lip-synching.” If the film was in German or Japanese, the actor’s words were dubbed to sound English. The only problem was that words and actions didn’t match. A classic example occurred when a French cast performed “Fiddler on the Roof.” All the body language was French, not Jewish.
• Because so many American films are now being seen around the world, it has produced considerable emulation. The Elvis Presley films, for example, caused many teenagers to mimic his nonverbal pelvic gyrations.
• In politics, many world leaders must accommodate differences in body language; e.g. bowing by Orientals, clasped hands and lowering the head by representatives from India, and physical touching etiquette indigenous to various other cultures.
• In America, the more eye contact people make, the more they like one another. We all have a “personal bubble,” an invisible sphere that determines how close we are willing to let people get. The higher on the social scale, the bigger their bubble. In the workplace, more important executives have larger offices than their secretary. Arms folded across the chest and legs crossed often suggest a resistance to what someone is being told or asked to do.
• People who are very self-confident tend to hold their heads high and maintain more direct and sustained eye contact. Shy and introverted types make less eye contact and hold their heads bent slightly forward. While seated, the more interest a person has in what someone is saying, the more they will lean forward. Less interest prompts leaning backwards.
• In a standing conversation, if the person’s feet are pointing toward you, they are interested in what you are saying. If they point away, it usually suggests a disinterest. How hands are help is also important. The clenched fist indicates less interest than the open hand.
• Lastly, there is something called somatotyping. It involves classifying people according to their body type. There are three types: ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs. The ectomorph is usually shy, tentative, and has low self-esteem. The mesomorph is well-muscled and highly confident. The endomorph inclines to be somewhat overweight and engaged in an occupation that requires little or no physical exertion.
None of the examples given here qualify as pure science. They simply reflect the observations made by researchers in the field of nonverbal communication. So, if you pay more attention to how people look and behave, rather than what they say. Chances are you will be communicating more effectively.
- Professor Eisenberg was born in New York City and now lives in Belleair Bluffs. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. His career consisted of teaching interpersonal/intercultural