Body Language

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Body Language: Cultural or Universal?

Body language and various other nonverbal cues have long been recognized as being of great importance to the facilitation of communication. There has been a long running debate as to whether body language signals and their meanings are culturally determined or whether such cues are innate and thus universal. The nature versus nurture dichotomy inherent in this debate is false; one does not preclude the other's influence. Rather researchers should seek to address the question how much of nonverbal communication is innate and how much is culturally defined? Are there any true universal nonverbal cues or just universal tendencies modified to suit cultural ideals and constraints? It is my proposal that of all forms of nonverbal communication the most universal is the communication of emotions through facial expression. Other channels of nonverbal communication are also of great importance in many cultures. However which channels are emphasized, what cues are considered acceptable and the symbolic meaning of the cues may vary from culture to culture. Ekman and Friesen (3) undertook an important cross-cultural study to determine how easily and accurately people from various literate Western and non-Western cultures could identify the appropriate emotion term to match photographs they were shown. The photographs were of Caucasian faces posed in certain facial expressions. The terms the subjects were given to choose from were happiness, surprise, disgust, contempt, anger, fear and sadness. The result was consistent evidence of agreement across all cultures examined. In order to rule out the possibility that exposure to mass-media had taught the subjects to recognize Caucasian facial expressions Ekman and Friesen undertook a similar study among a visually isolated culture in New Guinea (1). A different methodology was used; people were shown the photographs of posed Caucasian facial expressions and were asked to make up a story about the person and the moments leading up to that image. From these stories Ekman and Friesen concluded that these subjects were able to identify the emotions accurately. The one exception was that there seemed to be some confusion between expressions of surprise and fear. A similar experiment compared the perception of the emotions of English, Italian and Japanese performers by people from these three countries. The results were as follows: Both the English and Italian subjects could identify their own and each other's emotions but had difficulty with the Japanese. The Japanese subjects were able to identify the emotions of the English and Italians better than those groups had been able to judge the Japanese. However the Japanese subjects had difficulty determining Japanese facial expressions. This would seem to indicate that the Japanese face does not express emotion in the same manner as those of other cultures. However, another experiment (3) demonstrated different results. American and Japanese subjects were observed while watching films designed to evoke fear and disgust. During part of this observation the subjects were videotaped while watching the film alone. It was presumed that during this time no social rules would restrict the subject's display of emotion. When alone, no difference existed between the American and the Japanese subjects in the display of emotion. While watching the film with the researcher present the Japanese were more likely than the Americans to hide negative emotions with a smile. Observation of children who were born deaf and blind show that they make the same emotional expressions (3). There is no way that these children could have learned this behavior through sensory input. Similarly, a study involving sighted babies less than six months of age has shown that they react with fear to negative faces...
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