Nonverbal Behavior in Different Countries


In any culture, along with the ordinary, verbal language, there is also its system of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal cues convey a wide range of interpersonal and social information, including individual identity, biological sex, and gender, affect, interpersonal attitudes, and social and developmental attributes (Hall et al., 2018). In many countries, it is quite possible to find out the minimum necessary information without knowing the local language, exclusively using gestures. However, not in all countries, the same gesture has the same meaning. Sometimes facial expressions and gestures speak more about people than their words.

Furthermore, nonverbal behavior is closely connected with the history and traditions of the people and is assimilated from early childhood unconsciously. It gives people the right to think that nonverbal means of communication, including facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and intonation are universal, regardless of where the person is or with whom they communicate (Zand et al., 2019). Despite that, some gestures are only understood within a specific cultural group. For instance, North American culture includes a gesture of crossing fingers for good luck or extending the middle finger toward someone as an insult (Hall et al., 2018). Therefore, the culture of each country develops according to its laws, and each state has its own characteristics of non-verbal communication.

Nonverbal Behavior in Japan

In highly contextual countries, the role of non-verbal communication is quite high, and one of these countries is Japan. The Japanese are very skilled in non-verbal communication, and the reasons for this skill are rooted in history and national etiquette. Despite their rich nonverbal vocabulary, it is well known that the Japanese are markedly restrained in expressing their emotions (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978). The Japanese, on the whole, have a smaller set of means of expressing positive and negative feelings directed at their partners. Thus, the Japanese traditionally lack the pronounced gestures of gross rejection, open threat, outright insult, and sharp indignation (Koeda et al., 2013).

However, if a circle made by joining the index finger and thumb together is the A-OK sign indicating approval in the United States, in Japan, on the other hand, it has an obscene meaning (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978). It can be understood as a desire to receive money because the circle shown for the Japanese means a “coin”, money. If an American raises their pinky finger, as a demonstration of making a promise, this sign might also be misinterpreted by the Japanese, since the raised little finger in the Japanese sign system means “woman.”

Collectivist Mentality in Japan

Several concepts reflect the uniqueness of the mentality of the Japanese. One of them is the fact that Japan belongs to a collectivist culture (Zand et al., 2019). They need to be part of a large family with a cult of superficiality. In general terms, there must be a predominance of collective interests over personal ones. As stated above, the restraint of the Japanese is noteworthy, especially in personal contacts.

So, they are not characterized by physical contact in communication: even with close or intimate relationships, as opposed to Europeans (Park et al., 2014). Kisses, handshakes, and hugs, characteristic of American culture, for instance, are also not widespread in Japan, and physical contact is considered impolite and even offensive. In particular, compared to Americans, their facial expressions using eyebrows and mouth are significantly limited (Matsumoto & Kudoh, 1993). There are barely any expressive gestures of negative emotions – for example, intense indignation, open threat, direct insult, denial, etc.

Etiquette and Nonverbal Communication

At the same time, non-verbal means of politeness play a significant role in Japanese communication. They represent an extensive, strictly regulated system of etiquette and typical communication situations, including greetings, congratulations, requests, and apologies, most of which are explicitly national. It is important to note that, in general, Japanese etiquette is distinguished by special consideration of such factors as social status, age, and gender of communication participants (Kowner, 2002).

So, older people and people of higher social status are obligatory superior to their partner. Men traditionally stand above women on the social ladder, which is manifested both in everyday life and in formal business communication. During greetings, the Japanese bow, and the person who occupies the highest position or status, only slightly bows his head, and the one whose status is the lowest bows much lower (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978).

The act of bowing head in Japan is called Ojigi, which means “greetings” (Amri, 2019). The ability to bow properly is a sign of good form and upbringing. There are many circumstances that the Japanese should consider in Ojigi, for instance, a person should know how to hold hands in a particular case or when to straighten their back.

Nonverbal Communication in Business Conversations

Japanese negotiating style is non-individualistic. At the first meeting, business cards are exchanged, so that all participants immediately understand each other’s status and can determine the depth of the bow (Matsumoto & Kudoh, 1987).

The Japanese consider it their duty to accept the gift with only two hands, bowing respectfully. For an American, for instance, this is a manifestation of greed. Silence in negotiations can mean a negative answer; however, the Japanese try not to express it directly, as not to break the harmony. According to Kopp (2013), the Japanese speak of the garage, the art of silently communicating “belly to belly,” through intuition rather than with words. Furthermore, they adhere to short remarks instead of long tirades and always give the right to start a conversation to a communication partner.

Japanese are generally known to be good listeners. They have a specific communication style that they describe as ichi ieba ju wakaru, which means “hear one, understand ten” (Kopp, 2013). They are also noteworthy for having frequent pauses during the conversation and having a lack of fluency in speech. The Americans, for instance, tend to start the conversation by directly addressing the topic and seeking to clarify the matter as soon as possible. Japanese are annoyed by a straightforward manner, as they prefer to lead the discussion in such a way that it moves around the topic until all points of view are presented (Huruse, 1978).

The lack of desire to control the course of the conversation, dominate or convince can be categorized as a primary characteristic of the Japanese during a business conversation. Moreover, the Americans continuously move their eyebrows and eyes, giving the interlocutor additional information about his mood, impressions of the conversation, and hidden intentions. The Japanese do not give out their emotions, as their face remains impassive in attempts to manifest politeness during the dialogue (Huruse, 1978). Japanese tend to avoid looking directly into the eyes and express their feelings with limited expression. At the same time, they use a smile to express politeness (Matsumoto & Kudoh, 1993). It is customary for the Japanese to regularly apologize even if they have not done anything of the kind, as it is a detail of the national mentality.


Knowing the differences in features of each culture’s nonverbal behavior may assist in building effective communication with the interlocutor and, of course, helps to feel much more confident during the dialogue. Like facial expressions, gestures and postures are constantly used to supplement statements, as well as to convey content in cases where nothing has been said. Using a facial expression, a gesture, or a pose, it is possible to convey a joke, irony, or skepticism.

The impressions that people involuntarily render non-verbally often demonstrate to those around their hidden intentions, thoughts, and even secrets. There are many subtle signs of non-verbal communication that interlocutors can pick up. The spontaneous expression of sincerity on the face, as a rule, disappears after four or five seconds. For instance, if a smile lasts longer, then this indicates its artificiality. The expression of surprise that lingers on the face is often used to understand that the individual is not at all surprised and is purposefully mimicking the reaction. The nonverbal behaviors show both uniformity and diversity, as members of all cultures display affection, express intimacy, and deal with status, and at the same time are diverse, they are mostly language-bound (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978).

Thus, it can be said that mastery of non-verbal communication tools is no less critical for intercultural communication than knowledge of a foreign language. In conclusion, the effectiveness of communication depends not only on how much the interlocutor understands the words, but also on the ability to correctly and adequately interpret the information transmitted by gestures, facial expressions, body movements, pace, voice timbre, and other non-verbal means of communication.


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PsychologyWriting. "Nonverbal Behavior in Different Countries." September 22, 2023.