Differences in Interpersonal Nonverbal Communication between the USA and China
The purpose of this research was to find differences in interpersonal nonverbal communication between the USA and China, since nonverbal communication is an important part of doing international business. Students were observed in conversations with other students and lecturers/tutors to gather information in a business context. The participants for the primary research were four Americans and four Chinese and were observed in two different situations. The report supports the view that Americans and Chinese have a similar spatial behavior, but differences in the touch behavior, the gaze behavior and making eye contact, and gestures. These differences can provide fuel for conflicts in cross cultural business.
Table of Contents
1.2 Research question / Purpose1
1.4 Background / Literature review1
2.0 Sources and Methods2
Appendix A – Sample Observation and Questions Sheet
Appendix B – Table of Results
Appendix C – Filled-Out Observation and Questions Sheets – USA Appendix D – Filled-Out Observation and Questions Sheets – China Appendix E – Report Proposal
The topic of this report is a comparison of nonverbal communication of the USA and China. It is based on the cultural differences between the two countries in a business context. 1.2 Research question / Purpose
This report is based on the following research question:
What are the differences in interpersonal nonverbal communication between the USA and China? The purpose is to examine the differences in interpersonal nonverbal communication between the two countries. 1.3 Scope
This report describes the differences in the four main key elements of nonverbal communication (PROXEMICS, HAPTICS, OCULESICS and KINESICS) between USA and China. It considers the impact of cultural differences in this type of communication on the business work life. Additional elements of nonverbal communication such as CHRONEMICS and OLFACTICS are not a part of this report.
1.4 Background / Literature review
It has been argued (Chaney/Martin, 2000) that effective oral and nonverbal communication play an important role in successful cross-cultural business. Although much communication in international business is oral, the nonverbal level can be an important factor of correct understanding and interpreting oral communication. Gesteland (1999) argued that nonverbal communication can be classified in four key elements. The first element is PROXEMICS and stands for spatial behavior and interpersonal distance. The second and third are HAPTICS, the touch behavior and OCULESICS, the gaze behavior and eye contact. The fourth key element is KINESICS and means body movement and gestures. Chaney and Martin added two further elements to Gesteland’s key elements. They described CHRONEMICS as the attitudes toward time and OLFACTICS as a person’s smell. The cultural differences or also similarities in the four main key elements between the USA and China were shown by Chaney and Martin as well as by Gesteland as follows: Firstly, both countries show similar spatial behavior. Only Latin American and Latin European people get closer together in conversations. Secondly, North Americans do much more ‘backslapping’ and have firmer handshakes than Asians. Thirdly, in the USA direct eye contact is much more common.
Last but not least, some gestures have different meanings in each country. For every single element of nonverbal communication we have to be aware that the speaker does not use these signals in isolation. The listener is confronted with a mixed cocktail of many elements at the same time (Beamer/Varner, 2005). Andersen and Ting-Toomey clarified the importance of nonverbal messages as follows: “Nonverbal messages provide what verbal messages cannot express, and usually generate more trust than verbal messages” (Andersen/Wang, 2006, p. 251). Furthermore, research showed that nearly 75 percent of all communication is nonverbal (Trompenaars, 1993). That means in every face-to-face interaction we are sending more information to the other person than we thought and no-one is fully in control about the transmission (Mead, 2005).
2.0 Sources and Methods
Information for this report was collected from secondary literature such as books of cross-cultural communication. Additionally, primary research was made in two ways. The first part was an observation of the first three key elements of nonverbal communication (PROXEMICS, HAPTICS and OCULESICS) of American and Chinese people in their university. The participants were four students of each group with an equal number of men and women. The participants were observed in two different situations. On the one hand, the nonverbal interaction with other students was observed irrelevant whether the participants communicate with people of the same cultural origin. These results are supposed to show the way of nonverbal communication with colleagues in the workplace. On the other hand, a conversation of the participants and their supervisors (in this particular situation the lecturers/tutors) was observed. In both situations an aspect was also to research how the participants felt when they were confronted with cultural differences. The second part of the primary research analyzed the fourth element of nonverbal communication (KINESICS) in form of a questionnaire with the participants described above. That was necessary, because the meaning of gestures could not be clearly observed in the described situations. For both parts an observation- and questions-sheet was used (see appendix A). 3.0 Results
The results of the primary research are tabulated in appendix B and all filled out sheets are provided in appendix C for American and appendix D for Chinese participants. 3.1 Proxemics
The first part of the primary research analyzed the distance people keep in conversations and how they feel, if the person one is talking to comes closer. It showed that Americans are willing to get a bit closer in both situations with other students and lecturers/tutors as shown in Figure 3.1.1 and Figure 3.1.2. The research also presented that Americans feel more comfortable when the person they talk to comes a bit closer.
Figure 3.1.1 Distance between people in conversations with other students
Figure 3.1.2 Distance between people in
conversations with Lecturer/Tutor
By comparing the rates of 75% and 0% of the primary research we can argue that Americans do much more touching, for instance ‘backslapping’, than Chinese during conversations with other students (see figure 3.2.1). Moreover, the observation showed differences in handshaking. While Americans shake hands often and always firm, Chinese do it infrequently and then only gently when talking to other students (see figure 3.2.2), but none of both groups shakes hands with a lecturer/tutor.
Figure 3.2.1 Frequency of touching in situations with other students
Figure 3.2.2 Handshakes in situation with other students
In the third part of the research we analyzed the eye contact behavior. Asians avoid frequent eye contact, whereas Americans look most time in the eyes and face especially when talking to a lecturer/tutor as shown in figure 3.3.1 and figure 3.3.2. However, both parties argued they feel the other person might not be interested in the topic, if the person does not show at least the same eye contact.
Figure 3.3.1 Eye contact in situations with other students
Figure 3.3.2 Eye contact in situations with a Lecturer/Tutor
Question 8, 9 and 10 of the research sheet (see appendix A) analyzed the differences in gestures and provided results as follows: Research did not show any differences between the two countries in the meaning of raising the eyebrow (“I don’t know!”) and neither in the meaning of the “Thumbs Up”-sign (“everything is ok”). A big difference appeared the question about sitting with crossed legs in such a way that the sole is visible to anyone. Only 25% of the Americans voted “No”, whereas none of the Chinese would sit like that (see figure 3.4.1 and figure 3.4.2).
Figure 3.4.1 USA – Showing the sole of the shoe while sitting
Figure 3.4.2 China – Showing the sole of the
shoe while sitting
Americans used similar, but a bit less space than Chinese when talking to other students or lectures/tutors. These results show only slight differences to the general behavior described in the secondary research and were not particular surprisingly. 4.2 Haptics
If we look at the conversations of the participant with other students my results reflect exactly the behavior as described in the literature review above that Americans make much more body contact. But surprisingly, not a single person of both groups made body contact with lecturers/tutors. 4.3 Oculesics
Obviously, Americans made much more eye contact than Chinese. But unexpected for me was that all Chinese felt that the other person might not be interested in the topic, if the person does not show at least the same eye contact as they show him. It was surprising, because they did not make intense eye contact during the observation. 4.4 Kinesics
The primary research showed more similarity in the meaning of several gestures in USA and China than expected. However, some gestures can carry problems for international business, for instance the visibility of the sole of the shoe.
To sum up, Americans and Chinese have a similar spatial behavior, but show differences in the touch behavior, the gaze behavior and making eye contact, and gestures. Since most people are not aware of the dimension of nonverbal communication and no-one is fully in control about the transmission, as described in the literature review, these differences can provide fuel for conflicts in cross cultural business.
Andersen, Peter A & Wang, Hua 2006: Intercultural Communication [A READER], 11th edn, Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont. Beamer, Linda & Varner, Iris 2005: Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace, 3rd edn, McGraw-Hill, New York. Chaney, Lillian H & Martin, Jeanette S 2000: Intercultural Business Communication, 2nd edn, Prentice Hall, New Jersey. Gesteland, Richard R 1999: Cross-Cultural Business Behavior, Copenhagen Business School Press, Copenhagen. Mead, Richard 2005: International Management, 3rd edn, Blackwell Publishing, Malden. Trompenaars, F. 1993: Riding the Waves of Culture, Nicholas Brealey, London.