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INTRODUCTION. Cross-cultural communication requires not only knowledge of another language but also familiarity with nonverbal behavior and cultural practices
Cross-cultural communication requires not only knowledge of another language but also familiarity with nonverbal behavior and cultural practices, values, and customs. Extending beyond an understanding of the words, it is the ability to understand hidden meanings, motivations and intentions.
Nonverbal communication or body language is communication by facial expression, head or eye movements, hand signals, and body postures. It can be just as important to understanding as words are, because they may mean something very different from what they mean in your own culture. For example, nodding the head up and down is a gesture that communicates a different message in different parts of the world. In North America, it means “I agree”. In the Middle East, nodding the head down means “I agree” and up means “I disagree”. In a conversation among Japanese, it often simply means “I am listening.”
Misunderstandings can often arise between people from different cultures if they misinterpret nonverbal signals. A case in point is that while speaking with a salesman, one Japanese student in the United States nodded his head politely to show that he was paying attention. The next day the salesman
brought a new washing machine to the student’s apartment, because he took the nodding for YES.
But the following true incident illustrates how conflicting nonverbal signals can cause serious misunderstandings. While lecturing to his poetry class at one university in Cairo, a British professor became so relaxed that he leaned back in his chair and revealed the bottom of his foot to the astonished class. Making such a gesture in Moslem society is the worst kind of insult. The next day the Cairo newspapers carried headlines about the student demonstration, and they denounced British arrogance and demanded that the professor be sent home.
Although we spend many years learning how to speak a foreign language, misunderstandings can occur unless we also know the nonverbal language and the correct behavior of that culture.