Education Reduces Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding of Nonverbal Behaviour

When nonverbal behaviour varies across cultures, it’s easy to misunderstand someone from a different culture to your own. Despite this, when learning a foreign language, there’s not much focus on nonverbal behaviour. Perhaps there should be. I came across a nice example of a cross-cultural misunderstanding from Will Baker writing in the EFL Professional’s Written Forum:


“Languages and cultures use non verbal communication which conveys meaning. Although many gestures are similar in Thai and English such as nodding for affirmation many others are not shared. A good example of this is the ubiquitous ‘Thai smile’. The ‘smile’ carries a far wider range of meanings in Thai than it does in English culture. This can sometimes lead to serious communication breakdowns between Thais and English speakers.

An example from my own early experience in Thailand illustrates the point. When confronting the Thai owner of a language school with administrative problems, complaints regarding student numbers in the class were met by a beaming smile and little else. I took this to mean lack of concern or an attempt to trivialise or ignore the problem. I left the discussion upset and angry by what appeared to be the owner’s offhand attitude to my problems.

It was only later when another native speaking English teacher, with considerably more experience of Thailand, explained that a smile meant an apology and the fact that the following day all my complaints had been addressed, that I fully understood the situation.”

Explicit or implicit teaching?
The question becomes, then, how should nonverbal behaviour be taught? Is it something that can be picked up by simple exposure to people from that culture or does it need to be specifically taught?

A new study by Damnet & Borland (2007) suggests it may be better to explicitly teach nonverbal behaviour. This study examined Thai university students learning English as a foreign language.

One group were shown videos of native English speakers along with being taught the meaning of the words. In this way, while they were not explicitly taught about the nonverbal communication, they were implicitly exposed to it.

A second group, meanwhile, were explicitly taught about nonverbal communication in addition to learning the grammar and vocabulary. It was this second group that showed the best understanding of nonverbal communication.

Unfortunately, I can’t gain access to the full text of this article so this study is difficult to evaluate. Nevertheless, explicitly teaching nonverbal behaviour would probably be very useful, and if nothing else very interesting!

Actually it’s a real shame when cultural factors get ignored in language teaching. And all of these cultural factors can be just as important to communication as learning the vocabulary and the grammar.

Will Baker’s article provides a few more examples. For one it’s important to know which topics are taboo. Thai people do not consider criticism of their Royal Family polite conversation – something both the British and Australians find unusual.

On the other hand Thai speakers are much more likely to ask you about your family and why someone isn’t married, than native English speakers. Certainly between relative strangers, directly asking why someone isn’t married in British culture would be considered mildly insulting.

Your examples
If you’ve got any examples of cross-cultural misunderstandings, nonverbal or otherwise I’d love to hear them. Comment away…

» This post is part of a series on nonverbal behaviour.

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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 25 May 2007

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