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Human communication comprises language (the words we say), paralanguage (how our voices say these words), and nonverbals (the way the body sends messages that accompany speech or behaviors); these movements can also precede or replace actual words. Much as we have an accent in our languages that tells others where we’re from, nonverbal communication also delivers clues about a culture of origin. We can visit another land simply by observing or connecting with others right where we are: the emphatic hand gestures of Italy; the respectful bowing of Japan; right hand over the heart in Afghanistan; the warm eye contact that accompanies politeness (vvichlyvist) in Ukraine.

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Perhaps these elements of somatic prosody are suggestive of another time, another continent, another territory, and they take us there: to sundry seas, cafés, landscapes, with their attendant smells, air, and quality of light, as do accents we hear when people speak. They take us there, to the foreign, far-flung, and thrilling; we are all human, yet exhibit thousands of variations for how we use our nonlinguistic muscles to convey meaning. The kiss of a hand to denote “Delicious!” The sweep of that same hand to silently convey, “Forget about it.” The ubiquitous fist bump. The gesture that questions, “Are you using this chair?”

Within the complex system of nonverbal human communication, these proxemic and kinesic signals (the gestural “grammar” of our nonverbal language) are the result of a complex process bound up with and conditioned by culture. In fact, American language educator Max Kirch suggests that adopting the “habits of the native nonverbal system [of] another culture gives one’s behavior a ‘foreign accent’.” An American diplomat bowing in politeness to someone Japanese, for instance, does so with an “accent.”

Whereas kinesics can be defined as the systematic study of the relationship between nonverbal body motions (such as blushes, shrugs, or eye movement) and communication, proxemics is the study of our perception and structuring of interpersonal and environmental space as communication.

Gestural “accents,” such as queuing in line or asking for help getting luggage down from an overhead compartment, display how we politely (or otherwise, depending on perception and perspective) navigate being aware of each other and the arenas we occupy and defend; for example, the precious centimeters we use on an airplane, and how we line up, avoiding cutting in line, or being cut in upon. These physical accents can create reactions—gaffes, miscommunications, humor, and offense—provisional to culture.

Human Perception of Space and Time

The semiotics of space and its communicative function can shine a light on variations in behavior among members of different cultures. Proxemics, which comes from the Latin and French for proximity, + -emics, is analogous to other areas of study within linguistics, such as phonemics (the study of phonemes or distinct units of sound in a language). Pivotal research from Edward T. Hall examines how humans unconsciously structure “microspaces,” and that people from different cultures interacting with each other do not attach identical meanings to the same measured distances between them. Hall delineates four zones of interpersonal distance that characterize Western culture: intimate (up to 18 inches), personal (18 to 48 inches), social (48 inches to 12 feet), and public (greater than 12 feet).

Sociological researchers have determined that outside temperature, gender, and age have a lot do with the behavior of different countries when it comes to personal space, and these countries can be sorted into contact cultures (South America, the Middle East, Southern Europe) and non-contact cultures (Northern Europe, North America, Asia). Understanding these factors can aid us in preventing miscommunication by more adeptly interpreting the meaning of nonverbal actions.

Throughout 2020 and well into 2022, the navigation of these microspaces and their complementary nonverbals has had to shift on a global scale, with more effort needed to decide, for example, exactly how much distance was needed between people in line or in restaurants, to imagine someone’s smile or frown, and to discern what people were actually saying behind a mask.

We know that how we talk with our bodies and interact with regard to time (chronemics) is also quite culturally bound, the COVID-19 era having created new needs for communication. We communicate, as well as infer, the emotional states of others by using, perceiving, and reading facial expressions. In truth, one could wear a hat, a mask, and sunglasses and essentially render herself culture-less, expressionless, and languageless, at least from the neck up, because of our obscured nonverbal signals.

Nonverbals in Healthcare

One particularly salient context for this type of nonverbal communication is that of healthcare. How clinicians communicate with patients and their relatives, especially regarding maintaining isolation and social distancing, has proven particularly impactful in recent years.

For example, losing nonverbal cues because of pandemic masking changed crucial communication with families; to be highly effective, communication in medical encounters must capitalize on both verbal and nonverbal aspects. These have been compromised because of COVID, highlighting that emotion and empathy are as valuable in conveying diagnosis and prognosis, if not more so, than delivering factual information about them.

Behind a mask, we’ve had to become more nimble and creative with our nonverbal communication. Out from under a mask, we regain a priceless percentage of the essential microexpressions encoded in our facial muscles, sharing once again our cultures, territory, and comprehensive communication. 

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Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science