The Analysis of Body Language Intercultural Communications


With the international communication becoming closer,except the verbal communication in daily life, we may encounter many body languages. These body languages can express their mood or even substitute one sentence. Therefore, in order to understand the intercultural communication better, this dissertation first introduces the relationship between culture and language, then briefly explains what body language is and its function in intercultural communication, subsequently, briefly analyses the differences of the same body language in different cultures. At last, the dissertation suggests that when studying English language, one can’t ignore the huge body language, it will be helpful with our English study.

Key words: Language; culture; body language; intercultural communication

I. Introduction

With the international communication becoming more and more frequently, Chinese people may have many chances to get in touch with foreigners. They always use many body languages with their talk. It is a funny phenomena. Shakespeare said “There’s language in her eyes, her cheek, her lip, Nay, her foot speaks.” Indeed, these body language not only can make their word lively, but also express the speaker’s mood, or even substitute a sentence. What the body language means when they use for communication?This is the necessary knowledge of English study. Any kind of body language is formed on the foundation of culture. Without understanding the true meaning of a body language, it will embarrass or make mistake. Therefore, this dissertation will analysis the differences of same body language in the different cultures and suggest to study English on the premise of understanding their culture.

II. Literature review

2.1 Culture and language

2.1.1 Culture

The definition of “culture” is evolving as time passes. In the west, at first it was used to describe some ability of person which represent a form of act. Then “culture” used to describe the real achievement of a instructed person. And in 1952, a book of Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn named Culture. A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions was give a general definition based on more than 160 kinds of culture’s definition which was identified by modern east and west academic circle. And in China, its meaning was that with the understanding of all phenomena of human social, govern the world with instructing and inspiring. In the Confucian concept, “wen” not only means word, but also refer to all the rules of etiquette and music in general. In ancient Chinese language, “culture” meant guiding people with ethics. Culture is a complex concept and changing with human social. However, the word “culture” is most commonly used in three basic senses:

Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture

An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning

The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group

2.1.2 Language

Language is the important thinking and communicating tool of human being. With language people can keep and pass human civilization achievement. In general, any nation has its own language. It is a notable character of a nation and has long history. Language is closely related with thought. It is the carrier and exhibition form of thought. Language is a social phenomenon with stability and nationality. Though many animals can make sound to express their emotion or deliver message, these sounds are regular without change. Only person have language and can combine all the sounds that have no meaning to become a meaningful morpheme, then put these morphemes together in many ways to form utterance. Using infinite changing form to express infinite changing meaning.

2.1.3 The relationship between language and culture

Culture and language are mutual dependence and can not be separated. Language is part of culture, it is the media of culture communication. We use language to communicate, and language is largely influenced by culture.

The relationship between culture and language is on the foundation of nation. A nation produces language, at the same time produces culture. Edward Sapir thought that language can not exist without culture. The “culture” we talk about is social custom and belief. It can decide our life structure. Linguistician Palmer said that language faithfully reflects all the history and culture, game and amusement, belief and prejudice of a nation. As a part of nation’s culture, language reflects the nation’s visage, at the same time, language reflects the content of culture as form.

Language is the important carrier of culture. Other carriers such as historical site, book, or painting, only show part or even a corner of culture. But language stores all the information of culture comprehensively. Language consists of voice, vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary, especially the notional word, bear the important responsibility of carrying culture. Time passes, and many new words are coming into being, such as “virtual floating”, means netizens put their worries and secrets in the virtual bottle without knowing who will get it. All of these are anonymous. And “kickback”, the original of this word is that the International Olympic Committee will open an ethics investigation into Issa Hayatou over allegations the African football official took kickbacks from FIFA’s former marketing agency. But these new words hardly possible become part of culture. Only those language fact that integrate into the bottom life deeply, chosen and washed out by history, enter the basic nation vocabulary is the sign of language affect culture profoundly. For example, Buddhism have been spreaded about 2000 years. Some words like free, retribution, disengagement, hell are coming from Buddhism. These words have already integrated into Chinese become part of it.

Culture has effect on language semiotic system itself, language concept, thought and expression, and language learning. Nation culture is decided by the meaning of vocabulary. Different culture tradition and mentality have definitively function to it. Such as “dragon”, the western people have no favor to it, they thought it is monster, cruel person, stand for devil. But in ancient Chinese culture it stands for the son of heaven and the emperor, lucky and honorable. The reference content and way of culture are decided by the culture’s person and person’s culture. For example, Cantonese can’t see snow for the whole year, so they do not distinguish ice and snow in concept. The northman say “冰棍”, and Cantonese say “雪条”. But the Eskimo who live in arctic pole always contact with snow and have a perceptive. There are more than 20 kinds of words used to describe different snow. As the carrier and express tool of thought, language promote the development of thought, on the other hand, language is restricted by thought. For instance, Chinese say “火车”, that is “火” and “车”, looking into the physics function of “火” and “æ±½”. But in English, there is “railway train”, look into the move way of “rail” and “track”.

To understand the culture of English countries is the important step of English study. The research of language and culture is divided into “language & culture” and “language in culture”. So culture is divided into two part: big culture and small culture.(Bright, 1976) Here is a form:


Big culture

other cultural phenomena


Verbal language

Small culture

Non-verbal language

Body language is the important part of non-verbal language. Non-verbal language and culture are learned behaviour and social custom that rich in long history heritage. The relationship between both have these characters in someone like Samovar etal’s eyes: culture and non-verbal language can not be divided. Many non-verbal languages are the result of learning culture. The shaping and impacting of non-verbal behaviour are always decided by determinate culture environment. It is very important to understand the relationship between culture and non-verbal language. (Samovar etal, 1981) Samovar thought that through understanding the basic represent mode of some culture’s non-verbal language, we can search people’s behaviour and attitude. Through non-verbal language mode can understand a sort of culture’s value system. Through the research of non-verbal language can exclude the narrow ethnocentrism. The most realistic signification of researching the relationship between culture and non-verbal language in intercultural communication is to resolve the culture conflict in non-verbal language. People always do not realize the learning of their own culture, but very sensitive with other culture’s non-verbal language and easily produce misunderstand. Worth the whistle, the culture conflict brought by non-verbal language is serious than that brought by verbal language. Because non-verbal language always is the expression of sensibility and emotion. Samovar put forward that to resolve the non-verbal language culture conflict in international communication should remember the follow three principles when understand the meaning of other culture’s non-verbal language:

1. When pay attention to the behaviour of a non-verbal language can not ignore that there are manifold non-verbal language cooperative work in real communication.

2. Anyone can not list and describe all the non-verbal language in any culture. But if we can understand exactly the information of some usually used non-verbal language under the international communication environment, it will be helpful to understand the necessary information.

3. Only understand our culture’s non-verbal language first, can we understand other culture’s behaviour.

Under international communication, to identify the message of non-verbal language should avoid modal or only notice superficies. Be sure to keep in mind that any non-verbal language does not appear lonely, nor deliver any message consciously. Pay special attention to that when study foreign language, international communication activity, and international research, for the need of communicating, studying and researching, people have to make a summation and generalization of the non-verbal language of the same country and the same language nation to sum up some representative non-verbal language. However, in real communication, people must find that the non-verbal language in the same country and nation are not just the same. Even in the same area, it is differ in thousands of ways between the people in different occupations, different age groups and different culture levels. Such as America which is famous for multinational immigrant living together, their non-verbal language are very hard to be consistent. So as the different English country, the differences are more further.

III. Body language

3.1 Definition

Body language is a way of communication that body movements which use head, eyes, neck, hands, arm, foot or other parts of the body to express people’s thought and emotions. Facial expressions, eye contact and other postures and gestures are the commonly used body movement. In a general sense of word, body language includes facial expression, in a narrow sense of word, body language only includes the meaning expressed by body and four limbs. The assortment of body language was advanced by Ruesch and Kees in 1956 according to the basic component of non-verbal language. It involves sign language, action language, and object language. The other assortment was advanced by M. Knapp in 1978 through the analysis of some pertinent researching and literatures. That are body motion and kinesics behaviour, physical characteristics, touching behaviour, paralanguage, proxemics, artifacts, environmental factors. Subsequently, Jensen advanced another statement: body motion and gestures, attitudes toward time, attitudes toward space, general habits in communication.

The research of human body language can trace back to Aristotle in Greek. The formally research was beginning from Darwin. In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals put forward that man and animals have many similar expressions. The systemic research of body language must come first Ray Birdwhistell. His 1952 book Introduction to Kinesics put forward the theory of kinesics. Made the body language become a coding system like verbal language to study the relationship between body movement and communication.

Body Language of Julius Fast is a representative work that reflects the research result of body language. This book is known as the summary of the scientist’s research in the body language field. From then on, body language becomes a boundary science and produces new research result continuously.

According to estimates, human body can make out more than 270,000 kinds of posture and movement. This is far more than the sound made out by human body. These postures and movements’ meaning are very complex. Some are definite and material as some are general and blurry. Some are used to communicate as some are used to self-express. Some are expressing emotion message as some are reflecting character and attitude. So the sort of body language is very complex.

The body language classification method of Ekman and Friesen has important effent in non-verbal language communication educational circles. According to all the movement’s origin, usage and code, they divided human face and body’s continuous movement into five parts:

1. Symbolic movement: these movements have clearly meaning, such as the gesture express “OK” and “victory”. Symbolic movement always used to substitute verbal language. In general, they have distinct culture character. For example, the movement means “suicide”, in Japan, people use hand to simulate dagger to thrust the abdomen, and in America, people use hand to simulate a gun shot temple.

2. Illustrative movement: these kind of movements cooperate with verbal language directly to explain the meaning of the talking. For example, to emphasize a sentence, describe a thought, indicate a material, depict a space relationship, characterize a thing’s rhythm and speed, portray a phenomena , describe a body movement, explain a sentence’s meaning, etc.

3. Emotion revealing movement: mainly through facial expression to show emotion or mood, of course the other part of body can also express these emotion. Express the emotion can repeat, exaggerate,deny the verbal language, or may be no relationship with it. Express the emotion always deliver the message of communication unconscious, but also can use it in communicating conscious.

4. Modulation movement: this kind of movement is used for maintaining or adjusting the talk in the face-to-face talk. It drops a hint that the speaker can keep talking, repeat again, explain further, speak fast or more lively, let other people have a talk, etc. In recent years, people pay attention to the research of the turn-talking in chat. “Turn-talking” means that telling the opposite side “I want to talk”; stopping the speaker changing the topic; asking the other side to give me a speaking chance; let the other side keep talking; telling the others that “I have finish my talking” and “you can speak”. The usually used movement is head and eye movement.

5. Adaptable movement: Ekman and Friesen divide it more further: 1). Self-adaptable movement: this kind of movement always happen on personally, such as, holding own hand, rubbing hand, grabing, scratching, clutching, nipping, whisking or gathering the cloth. In general, the emotion is more disconcerting, the pretty actions are more distinguished. Picking nose and wiping eyes belong to this kind. 2). Transformational adaptable movement: this kind of movement take place in the connect with other people. Such as, bringing or delivering, attacking or protecting, close or away. Leg movement can react that encroach, footsie or attack. Shaking hand or foot means fidgety that the person want to avoid talking. 3). Object adaptable movement: this kind of movement always relate to the using of material, such as smoking and writing.

3.2 The function of body language in intercultural communication

As the necessary communication tool, body language has important function in intercultural communication. Bradford J. Hall(2002) summarized the mainly function of body language language:

1. Repetition: Body language can reinforce the verbal language by repeating the verbal message nonverbally, such as using a gesture, it can help the receiver understand the message easily. For example, when someone ask you where is the restaurant, you can point a certain direction when you say,” the restaurant is north the library.” Or we point to the question on the book we just ask.

2. Substitution: Body language can be used to replace some verbal language to deliver a certain meaning. When your friend meet a sad thing that make him cry, you can give him a hug. This is more powerful than any soothing words.

3. Contradiction: Body language sometimes can betray the speaker by sending contradictory message to the verbal language. The body language is often regarded as the powerful word than the spoken words. For example, we can’t keep our face from blushing even say we don’t nervous or we can’t slow down our heartbeat if we are scared. And the teacher can find a student is wandering from the eyesight even though his eyes are staring the blackboard. So the body language is reliable than the verbal language sometimes.

4. Accentuation: It can force the power when you add a body language with your talk than only use verbal language. When you apologize to someone, if an apology show on you face, this can make your apology more conviction. In addition, body language can provide a complement to the verbal language. In some countries, you can up you thumb as the same time you give a admiration to your friends for his good performance.

5. Regulation: The body language also helps us to control the situation of our talking. For example, when we need a quiet, we can put our finger on our lip.

IV. The analysis of the differences of the same body language in different cultures

4.1 The different meaning of the same body language in different cultures

Here contrast some body languages that usually used but have different meaning. If you use a very awful body language, this might bring a badly result.

1. In China, up the thumbs means “good” to praise you are doing a good job, bravo and so on. It is same in many countries. If thumbs down means disagree, finish or you’re game over. But in Australia, no matter it up or down is obscene.

2. Protrude the index finger means “wait a minute” in America, but in Australia it means “one more beer”.

3. Protrude the little finger means cowardly man in England as bet in America.

4. The “V” for victory or peace sign in America if made with the palm facing inward is taunting or sneering in England. It is very offensive to society’s morals.

5. American people sometimes up head, palm facing down, index finger across the throat, it means “I’m full. I can’t eat anymore.” But it means decapitation in China.

6. When Chinese people communicating with foreign people, the most antipathetic movement is using index finger point the others casual. Indeed, the movement is in bad taste and impolite to western people. This is reproof and rebuke.

7. Chinese male like to put hands on other man’s shoulder for a long time. And Chinese female frequently take other woman’s hand closely for long time. These shock the foreigners because they consider this gesture means homosexual.

8. When Chinese people receive or send a cup of water or a gift, they will use two hands to accept it to show appreciate and admiration. But American people don’t care about whether use one or two hands.

9. When talking with American people Chinese like to put their hands crossed behind their back or into their pockets. But these gestures make the American think you are hiding guns in your hands.

10. Chinese may scratch their noses when feeling uncomfortable. This is confused the western people because in their culture this movement means “I’m telling a lie”.

4.2 Some embarrassing examples due to misunderstanding of body language

Under the same culture, people may have misunderstanding because of the body language, even the different culture. Culture difference in different countries, so the body language can express different meaning. If we do not understand the other people’s meaning, it will have misunderstanding and displeasure. For Examples:

Tom is the manager of an American company in China. Recently, Li Lei, one of the Chinese staff makes a mistake at work. He is very upset about what had happened, so he comes to Tom’s office to apologize. Entering the office with smile. He says:” I feel terribly sorry for the mistake. I am here to make a sincerely apology to you and promise that it will never happen again.” When he said this, the smile always on his face. But Tom feels it is hard to accept and ask him”Are you sure?” Li says ” yes ” with smile. Tom is angry and says”You don’t look sorry at all. If you really feel sorry, how can you still smile?” Li feels so embarrassed and does not know what to do.

A Chinese student Wangdan and her friend, the American student Judy who studys in China were on the way to store. They saw a boy fell down on the ground. He tried to stand up while the surrounding people laughed. Luckily he was ok. Judy was worried but found Wangdan was smiling too. She was very curious and asked” how could you laugh when someone else fell down. Why don’t you help him to stand up and ask him whether he was hurt.” Wangdan said,” Because they know he was not hurt too much.” But Judy still couldn’t understand. She said, “In my culture, if this was happen, we would do anything but laugh.”

The former examples are all about the “smile”. In daily life we usually smile, but in different culture, this ordinary movement can bring misunderstanding or some more serious results. When western people come across these situations, they will with solemn face to apologize or come to console the boy. Though smile means happy, it is the symbol for people in general, but in different culture, smiling in the communication are different. The western people think smile always means happy, high in spirits or think something is funny. But Chinese people often smile, because it not only means humours and satisfaction, also means embarrassment and protection, even a kind of evadable. So it confuses the western people, they say it is too hard to understand. In China, people sometimes use smile to eliminate embarrassment, also means “never mind”, and the person smile to self-mockery or play a joke. But if the affair is very serious, people will provide help but laugh out of court. So for the people who do not know the meaning, this kind of smile will make them unhappy even produce antipathy.

A Chinese student went to a American family and sent present to the child of this family,when he beckon to the little boy, yet the boy back off him.

The hand movement is very abundant and with infective. Every gesture has its particular function. In the case, the Chinese student used Chinese gesture, which palm facing down and making a scratching motion with fingers to beckon. This is different in America that means to go away. When they let somebody to close up, their palm facing up or only move index finger. This is opposite to Chinese and may bring Chinese people’s repulsion.

V. Conclusion

After the briefly analysis of the analysis of body language in intercultural communications, we have a knowledge about the relationship between culture and language, and the influence of body language in the communication. The body language in our daily life is incalculable. Every one can use his body to represent himself. Body language is the same as verbal language to be the carrier of culture that may cause misunderstanding in the international communication because of culture difference. As an English major, to understand the culture of the target language is very important. Having the knowledge of body language will be helpful to us in intercultural communication.

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