Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication in Effective Cross-Cultural Communication


Cross cultural communication (also known as intercultural communication) as a discipline attempts to describe how people coming from different cultures across the world communicate with each other (Ferraro 2010, p.103). It studies the various media and forms with which people communicate and describes how effectiveness is achieved in their communication. The forms of cross cultural communication may either be verbal or non- verbal. Verbal communication occurs when information is transmitted from an individual (sender) to another (receiver) by oral means. The sender of the information may be one or several; similarly the recipient of the information could either be one person, a group of people or sometimes even an audience (Nantel et al 2008, p.92).

Main body

Oral communication may take various approaches ranging from subject discussions, delivery of speeches to presentations. This form of communication may also adopt a face-to-face approach in which case the intonation of the voice of the sender as well as their body language play a significant role in emphasizing and ensuring the understanding a perfect comprehension of the sent information. In some cases, the body language and tone of the speaker may actually impact more than the real spoken words. (Foong 2008, p.59)

Research done on the discipline of communication has indicated that effective communication is nether words alone nor exclusively non-verbal. In what has come to be identified as the “7%, 38%, 55% rule”, several aspects are critically analyzed in ascertaining the depth and intended meaning of the communication. It has been established that 55% of all communication constitutes the body language of the sender, 38% of this communication lies in the voice and tonal variation of the communicator while only a paltry 7% is evident in the actual meaning of words (content of words used). (Boren 2000, p.74)

The importance of these findings and relationship between various aspects of communication is that, in any particular instance where there is a conflict on the side of the communicator (sender) between the words spoken, the tone of their voice and their body language change so as to make the intended meaning difficult to comprehend; then the orientation of the speaker’s body language and vocal intonation shall prevail in deducing the intended meaning of the message being passed across and not the actual meaning of words spoken (Pease 2001, p. 69).

For example, conveying feelings, sentiments or emotions and a speaker can say “I am excited to see you”, but while speaking these words mumbles inaudibly, haunches over or even looks away from the person whom the words are directed, this may taken to mean that the speaker is actually dishonest in the statement and means the exact opposite.

It is therefore clear that effective communication between individuals of different cultural orientations and backgrounds is not entirely dependent on “what” is being communicated but rather is determined to a larger extent by the “how” the information is being communicated.

Take another instant where two people crack a joke to a listening audience. There is a possibility that the speaker who connects to the audience and captures their attention will cause the audience to burst out and laugh hilariously to a joke that is tactfully delivered with an intelligent use of vocal intonation and gestures. Another speaker may actually employ the same words used by prior speaker and instead of generating a similar effect of laughter; the sitting audience will stare at each other blankly trying to get the joke.

In non verbal communication however, content is passed across from sender to receiver through the use of wordless messages. (Ribbens, 2000 p.76) This brings out a communication dimension that language is not exclusively important in cross cultural communication but other auxiliary means are also of significance. Indeed non verbal messages may be effectively passed across by the exclusive use of gestures, eye contact and facial expressions. It is also important to note the external manifestation and appearance may also communicate effectively, for instance the use of clothing and décor as well as hair style or make up may pass significant social and cultural messages.

In a number of western civilizations and cultures, dress code is considered to be fairly permissive and liberal, however in the African traditional societies as well as other civilizations from Asia and South America; some form of dressing is considered inappropriate or allowed only by a given group of people to help covey cultural messages. The reason for this being the fact that the type of message conveyed is in both instances is varied, what is implied in one case is not necessarily politely taken on the other end.

The dress code of a particular society or setting is generally assumed to be understood whether written or unwritten, in most societies, the mode of dressing communicates information touching on status in society, income of the person or religious inclination, other forms of cross cultural dressing will indicate an individual’s sexual orientation, marital status and attitudes. Even when it is not deliberate, clothing will often communicate a social meaning, when one wears expensive designs, this is associated with wealth and affluence whereas simple or poor quality dressings depict distress and financial incapacity (Kendon 1983, p. 105).

Ceremonies and dancing are regarded as an important form of non verbal communication across different cultures of the world. This mode of communication is used to imply the togetherness and unity of the people. In some ceremonies peoples from different parts of the world come together as one. In business this is a common mode of communication where an organization holds conferences or organizes parties for its actors. This creates an ample ambience for people to act as one and interact; one is able to appreciate other people’s cultures and practices (Leathers 1989, p 25).


However, there are issues related to cross cultural communication and any form of misunderstanding that may arise thereafter, basically border on different interpretations accorded to the message conveyed. It is therefore, critical for consideration to be given to the cultural context before the content of the message is conveyed so as avoid a strain in social or business relationships (Sriussadaporn 2006, p. 96).

In order to iron out any cross cultural differences in communication, the non verbal form should be considered and analyzed critically as it is essentially the most controversial. Winking for instance being a from of non verbal communication may be used among peers to indicate “secret” agreements or consensus that is unknown to other people around while in some societies it may mean dissatisfaction, disagreement or even grief. Because non verbal communication can be misrepresented, reasonable care must be taken and the context fully understood so as not to distort the intended meaning.

Reference List

Boren, M. T., & Ramey, J. 2000. Thinking aloud: Reconciling theory and practice. IEEE transactions on Professional Communication, 43(3), 261-278.

Ferraro, G. P. 2010, The Cultural Dimension of International Business, 6th edn, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Foong, Y. P. & Richardson, S. 2008. The perceptions of Malaysians in a Japanese company. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 15(3), p. 221-243.

Kendon, A. 1983. Gestures and speech how they interact: Non-verbal interaction. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Leathers, D. 1989. Successful non-verbal communication. New York: Macmillan.

Nantel, J. & Glaser, E. 2008. The impact of language and culture on perceived website usability. Journal of Engineering Technology Management, 25(1), p. 112–122.

Pease, A. 2001. Body language – How to read others’ thoughts by their gestures. New Delhi: Sudha Publications.

Reisinger, Y. 2009. Cultural Influences on Intercultural Communication. Jordan Hill: OxfordUniversity Press.

Ribbens, G. & Thompson, R. 2000. Body language in a week. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Sebenius, J. K. 2002. The Hidden Challenges of Cross-border Negotiations. Harvard Business Review, 80(3), p. 76-85.

Sriussadaporn, R. 2006. Managing international business communication problems at work: a pilot study in foreign companies in Thailand. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 13(4), p. 330-344.