Linguistic Anthropology

Is body language universal?
Answered by Valerie Conners, Elizabeth Blackwell and 1 other
  • Valerie Conners

    Valerie Conners

  • Elizabeth Blackwell

    Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. Upon traveling to Tibet and meeting locals for the first time, a Westerner might be dismayed to encounter a person briefly sticking out his or her tongue. Yet this isn't the sign of disrespect the traveler believes it to be. Rather, it's a common Tibetan greeting. Similar confusion might occur if  while visiting Brazil you were to flash someone the "OK" sign by making a circle with your thumb and forefinger. According to Brazilian culture, you just unleashed a mighty insult. Such distinct differences in gestures lead people to correctly assume that there are multiple ways to interpret non-verbal communication across different cultures.

    But is it also possible some aspects of body language are universal? Yes.

    In humans, certain physical responses to emotions or experiences are universal regardless of culture. For example, when angry, a person's blood pressure rises, body heat increases and heart rate accelerates. These responses will lead to a number of physical reactions including a red face, shaking hands, legs or voice. Another aspect of body language considered to be universal is the shoulder shrug, which can be used to indicate a listener does not understand what a speaker is saying. Additionally, studies of body language in Barbara and Allen Pease’s “The Definitive Book of Body Language” have found that when lying, people will involuntarily increase movement in their feet and legs. These types of automatic physical responses show themselves through body language, but should be differentiated from the cultural body language we first described.

    Generally, researchers agree that there are six essential human emotions that can be universally recognized across cultures through nonverbal communication: happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. These emotions are most easily identified by facial and vocal expressions, but studies by researcher Mark Coulson also show that people will recognize these emotions with a high degree of accuracy simply when witnessing the universal aspects of posture associated with each emotion.

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  2. Body language is a form of nonverbal communication, a way people signal what they think and how they feel without using words. According to research by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, about half of each message a person sends to someone else is nonverbal. Facial expressions, body posture and hand positioning can all contribute to the way a message is perceived. At times, body language even contradicts the words a person speaks.

    Certain gestures and expressions are cultural in origin, so how they are “read” varies from country to country. For example, the hand gesture that signals “OK in the U.S. is considered obscene in Brazil. An expression that comes across as unfriendly in a North American country might appear respectful to someone in East Asia.

    Cultural differences aside, certain manifestations of body language are universal. Research studies have found that facial expressions registering happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, disgust and fear are recognizable all over the world. These findings prove that much of what we consider body language is an inborn, physical response to emotional triggers. A woman who is angry will narrow her eyes, steel her shoulders or cross her arms across her chest. A child who is frightened will tremble or curl his body inward to protect himself from danger. When a person is happy, the body’s muscles relax and the mouth widens into a smile. Such examples of how the body manifests emotions can be found all over the world.

    Other, rudimentary forms of body language can be used to communicate across language barriers, albeit at a very basic level. Travelers to foreign countries often use gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to find out information (for example, by rubbing their stomach and miming the action of putting food in their mouth to indicate that they’re hungry). If body language were not universal, such wordless cross-cultural exchanges would never work.


    Language Qa1
    (JupiterImages/Thinkstock)

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  3. Body language seems as if it would be universal, but like many other nuances of languages and cultures, body language varies around the world. Body language and other forms of nonverbal communication can be interpreted differently in various cultures. That may seem unimportant, but social anthropologist Edward T. Hall has said that in a normal conversation between two people, 65 percent of social meanings are communicated through nonverbal  channels and only 35 percent through words [source: NACADA]. Body language has been called "the silent language." Considering that the face alone can make about 250,000 expressions and that there are 5,000 distinct hand gestures, it's easy to see how our bodies can communicate almost as completely as can spoken words [source: Snook].

    You might rely on body language to communicate meaning or emotion. It also might betray you if you're unaware of customs and what's considered rude in certain societies. For example, blowing your nose at a social gathering is considered disgusting in most Asian countries. Even signals we think would be universal, such as nodding one's head to indicate agreement, can be translated in different ways. In Kuwait, for example, nodding one's head up and down indicates "no." There are countless examples of such cross-cultural differences. For instance, in Japan, people avoid eye contact as a sign of respect, but in the United States, a lack of eye contact can signal a lack of respect or untrustworthiness. If you point with your index finger, be careful in Asia, where gesturing with anything less than the whole hand is considered rude. And if you like a lot of personal space, you may want to avoid Europe, where you'll encounter many people who will stand very close to you while talking.

    Here's one universal body language cue that can help, especially if you're otherwise clueless but do speak the local language: Cupping your ear means "I can't hear you" in just about every society.

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