Language and Communication

We often think when going abroad that if we are fluent in the host language or the locals speak our language, we won’t have a problem. But experts say that over 50 percent of communication is non-verbal. The percentage is probably higher when communicating across cultures. Language isn’t enough!

Non-verbal communication includes:
  • Eye contact 
  • Facial expressions 
  • Gestures  
  • Kinesics (body movement of head, eyes, shoulders, lips, eyebrows, neck, legs, arms, fingers,
  • Posture, stance, walking)  
  • Proximity (distance between speakers; definition of ‘personal space’)  
  • Paralinguistics (tone, pitch, rhythm, timber, loudness, inflection) 

Most Americans consider direct eye contact appropriate and respectful, but in many cultures it is inappropriate—especially between men and women.

The same is true of proximity. The amount of distance between speakers is often much less in other cultures than Americans are comfortable with.

Even something as simple as nodding to indicate agreement is not universal. In Sri Lanka, people shake their head from side to side when they agree with you or are responding “yes.”