Nonverbal Communication

When we think about communicating with people from another country, we think first about their spoken language. But much (some scholars think most) communication between people is nonverbal, involving dress, ornaments, facial expressions, gestures, postures, and body positioning. A few statements about nonverbal communication with Americans have already been made in the Communicative Style of Americans section. Here are some more comments:

Eye Contact

When they are talking to someone, Americans alternate between looking briefly into the listener’s eyes and looking slightly away. When they are listening to another person, they look almost constantly at the speaker’s eyes. Americans tend to distrust people who do not look into their eyes while talking to them.

Touching

People in some countries touch their conversation partners far more frequently than Americans do; people in still other countries touch each other even less often than Americans do. American men rarely touch each other, except when shaking hands. Women touch each other somewhat more often, but with rare exceptions they do not walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm the way women in many countries do. Americans usually get nervous if another person stands closer than about an arm’s length away, unless the other person is a partner in a romantic relationship. They stand a bit closer if they are side-to-side rather than face-to-face.

This is not say that there is a taboo on touching conversation partners. There is not. Some Americans periodically touch their conversation partners lightly on the arm or shoulder while talking.

Hygiene

As you can readily tell from television commercials, Americans have been taught that the natural smells of people’s bodies and breath are unpleasant. Many Americans bathe or shower daily (or more often if they engage in vigorous exercise during the day), use an underarm deodorant to counteract the odor of perspiration, and brush their teeth with toothpaste at least once daily and perhaps more often than that. In addition, they may rinse their mouths with a mouthwash or chew mints in order to be sure their breath is free of food odors. It is very common for women to shave their legs and underarms and to use a small quantity of perfume each day; many men use a scented cologne or after-shave lotion to impart what they believe is a pleasant smell. “Too much” of a perfume or cologne is generally considered unpleasant. Most Americans will quickly back away from a person who has “body odor” or “bad odor” or “bad breath.” This backing away may be the only signal that they are “offended” by another person’s breath or body odor. The topic of these odors is so sensitive that most Americans will not tell another person that he or she has “bad breath” or “body odor.”

Other Guidelines

In a thoughtful and concise introduction to American society and culture, Cornelius Grove offers these points:

  1. Americans have no taboo of any kind associated with the left hand; they are as likely to touch you or to hand you objects with the left hand as with the right hand.
  2. Americans have no negative association with the soles of the feet or the bottom of the shoes; they do not feel it necessary to prevent others from seeing these locations.
  3. A common way to greet small children in the U.S. is to pat them on the top of the head.
  4. People in the U.S. often point with their index finger and wave it around in the air as they make especially important points in conversation.
  5. One beckons to another person to come closer by holding the hand with the palm and fingers up.
  6. Americans show respect and deference for another person by looking him or her in the face.
  7. Informal, relaxed postures are commonly assumed by U.S. people when they are standing or sitting, even when they are conversing with others; lack of formal posture is not a sign of inattention or disrespect.
  8. Americans are uncomfortable with silence; they expect to talk rather constantly when in the presence of others.
  9. In the U.S., the doors of rooms usually are left open unless there is a specific reason to close them.
  10. Punctuality – being on time – is important to many U.S. people; they are likely to become quite annoyed if forced to wait more than 15 minutes beyond the scheduled time for meetings or appointments.