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Body Language

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Body Language: Cultural or Universal?

Body language and various other nonverbal cues have long been recognized as being of great importance to the facilitation of communication. There has been a long running debate as to whether body language signals and their meanings are culturally determined or whether such cues are innate and thus universal. The nature versus nurture dichotomy inherent in this debate is false; one does not preclude the other's influence. Rather researchers should seek to address the question how much of nonverbal communication is innate and how much is culturally defined? Are there any true universal nonverbal cues or just universal tendencies modified to suit cultural ideals and constraints? It is my proposal that of all forms of nonverbal communication the most universal is the communication of emotions through facial expression.

Other channels of nonverbal communication are also of great importance in many cultures. However which channels are emphasized, what cues are considered acceptable and the symbolic meaning of the cues may vary from culture to culture. Ekman and Friesen (3) undertook an important cross-cultural study to determine how easily and accurately people from various literate Western and non-Western cultures could identify the appropriate emotion term to match photographs they were shown. The photographs were of Caucasian faces posed in certain facial expressions. The terms the subjects were given to choose from were happiness, surprise, disgust, contempt, anger, fear and sadness. The result was consistent evidence of agreement across all cultures examined. In order to rule out the possibility that exposure to mass-media had taught the subjects to recognize Caucasian facial expressions Ekman and Friesen undertook a similar study among a visually isolated culture in New Guinea (1). A different methodology was used; people were shown the photographs of posed Caucasian facial expressions and were asked to make up a story about the person and the moments leading up to that image. From these stories Ekman and Friesen concluded that these subjects were able to identify the emotions accurately. The one exception was that there seemed to be some confusion between expressions of surprise and fear.

A similar experiment compared the perception of the emotions of English, Italian and Japanese performers by people from these three countries. The results were as follows: Both the English and Italian subjects could identify their own and each other's emotions but had difficulty with the Japanese. The Japanese subjects were able to identify the emotions of the English and Italians better than those groups had been able to judge the Japanese. However the Japanese subjects had difficulty determining Japanese facial expressions. This would seem to indicate that the Japanese face does not express emotion in the same manner as those of other cultures. However, another experiment (3) demonstrated different results. American and Japanese subjects were observed while watching films designed to evoke fear and disgust. During part of this observation the subjects were videotaped while watching the film alone. It was presumed that during this time no social rules would restrict the subject's display of emotion. When alone, no difference existed between the American and the Japanese subjects in the display of emotion. While watching the film with the researcher present the Japanese were more likely than the Americans to hide negative emotions with a smile.

Observation of children who were born deaf and blind show that they make the same emotional expressions (3). There is no way that these children could have learned this behavior through sensory input. Similarly, a study involving sighted babies less than six months of age has shown that they react with fear to negative faces (7). These infants were too young to have learned which faces had negative connotations. This would have to be an innate response. Different cultures define when and where it is acceptable to display certain emotions and the stimulus that triggers a certain emotion may vary from culture to culture. The facial expression of emotions seems to be a universal. There may be an evolutionary advantage to this form of communication. When people are communicating they tend to mimic one another's facial expressions. It has been shown that making a face associated with an emotional response actually causes the person to feel that emotion (2). This shared empathy seems to aid in facilitating group harmony and communicating states of mind.

While facial expressions may be universal (although subject to cultural rules) the use of the rest of the body as a communicative tool is widely varied from culture to culture. Although the body is an important channel of communication in every culture, the information that the body conveys and the manner in which it conveys it varies greatly. This is illustrated in the contrast between Japanese and Arab nonverbal communication styles. Japanese conversation involves a great deal of ritual and prescribed answers. Much of the information in an encounter is transmitted via nonverbal channels. It is important to the Japanese that emotions not be shown in public. This applies to both negative (sorrow, anger) and positive (joy) emotions, although more strongly to negative emotions. A poker face is considered ideal in public; in private a faint smile is acceptable. In most situations sorrow or displeasure must not be shown. It is preferable to mask negative feelings with a smile than display them (7). The Japanese do not look one another in the eye very often. Instead they are taught to look at the neck. In particular they avoid looking at the faces of superiors. As was shown above, Japanese have difficulty reading Japanese emotions. Because hierarchical rank is very important in Japan, people take great care to establish the correct relationship (bowing, tone of voice, etc.). Many of the rituals of Japan place emphasis on the employment of subtle and restrained nonverbal communication. In addition to the usual emphatic and illustrative gestures there are gestures, called "temane" that have arbitrary meanings and are used at a distance (6).

Arabs are also very sensitive to nonverbal behavior. They too engage in a great deal of behavior that is ritualized or socially determined; nonverbal cues clarify meaning. Tradition dictates that interactants should control their emotions and the pitch of their voice. In reality men often show powerful displays of emotion, even going so far as to tear at their clothing and scream in public (4). Interpersonal attitudes are conveyed almost entirely by nonverbal cues. Because Arabs are

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