4.4 Nonverbal Communication and Culture

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss the role of nonverbal communication in relational contexts.
  2. Discuss the role of nonverbal communication in professional contexts.
  3. Provide examples of cultural differences in nonverbal communication.
  4. Provide examples of gender differences in nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication receives less attention than verbal communication as a part of our everyday lives. Learning about cultural differences in nonverbal communication is important for people traveling abroad but also due to our increasingly multinational business world and the expanding diversity and increased frequency of intercultural communication within our own borders.

Nonverbal Communication and Culture

As with other aspects of communication, norms for nonverbal communication vary from country to country and also among cultures within a particular country. We’ve already learned that some nonverbal communication behaviors appear to be somewhat innate because they are universally recognized. Two such universal signals are the “eyebrow flash” of recognition when we see someone we know and the open hand and the palm up gesture that signals a person would like something or needs help (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Smiling is also a universal nonverbal behavior, but the triggers that lead a person to smile vary from culture to culture. The expansion of media, particularly from the United States and other Western countries around the world, is leading to more nonverbal similarities among cultures, but the biggest cultural differences in nonverbal communication occur within the categories of eye contact, touch, and personal space (Pease & Pease, 2004). Next, we will overview some interesting and instructive differences within several channels of nonverbal communication that we have discussed so far. As you read, remember that these are not absolute, in that nonverbal communication like other forms of communication is influenced by context and varies among individuals within a particular cultural group as well.


Cultural variations in the way we gesture, use head movement, and use eye contact fall under the nonverbal category of kinesics.


Remember that emblems are gestures that correspond to a word and an agreed-on meaning. When we use our fingers to count, we are using emblematic gestures, but even our way of counting varies among cultures (Pease & Pease, 2004). I could fairly accurately separate British people and US Americans from French, Greek, and German people based on a simple and common gesture. Let’s try this exercise: First, display with your hand the number five. Second, keeping the five displayed, change it to a two. If you are from the United States or Britain you are probably holding up your index finger and your middle finger. If you are from another European country you are probably holding up your thumb and index finger. While Americans and Brits start counting on their index finger and end with five on their thumb, other Europeans start counting on their thumb and end with five on their pinky finger.

Person holding up hand
This common gesture for “five” or as a signal to get someone’s attention is called a moutza in Greece and is an insulting gesture.

Insult gestures tend to vary across cultures and are different as well in the extent to which they are used. In Greece, for example, the mountza (μούντζα) or moutza (μούτζα) is a commonly seen insult gesture. It consists of spreading the fingers (one hand or both) and trusting them outwards, towards the other person (as if flinging something unpleasant). In other cultures, the arm-thrust (bras d’honneur) is used, forging a fist and slapping it upwards under the biceps of the arm. Such gestures can be highly offensive and are often considered obscene. Other gestures may convey skepticism or disbelief, such as the French mon oeil (my eye), using a finger to pull down the lower eyelid. The gesture is also used in Japan, known as the Akanbe (あかんべえ).

Figure 5.1.4𝐵5.1.4B: Akanbe gesture in Japan
The caution in using gestures extends to those which may be widespread in a culture, and which we may interpret as universal. The North American A-OK sign (circled thumb and pointer finger, with the other fingers spread out) is an obscene gesture in many European cultures. Likewise, the inverted peace sign – two fingers facing inwards is an insult in England and Australia. The thumbs-up gesture signals in North America well done; in Greece and other countries, it is equivalent to the insulting “Up yours!” (Cotton, 2013). US President George W. Bush famously used thehook ‘em horns gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team to signal his approval of the marching band of the University of Texas. In Italy, that gesture is well-known, but it doesn’t signal fan enthusiasm or let’s rock. It is called il cornuto, indicating that the other person is a cuckold, that is, that his wife is cheating on him (Cotton, 2013).

Pointing with the forefinger is a gesture North Americans frequently use. Using that gesture to point at people is in some cultures extremely rude. Likewise, the beckoning gesture with palm turned upward and extending one finger or the whole hand is considered an insult in Japan and other countries. There are a variety of beckoning gestures, In Afghanistan and the Philippines, for example, one motions downward with the palm of the hand facing the ground (Cotton, 2013). Emblems have traditionally been culture-specific. However, the forces of globalization and technology have exposed people worldwide to gestures used in popular media (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2012). Through the greater availability globally of North American television shows and movies, as well as the popularity of social media such as Facebook and YouTube, some North American gestures, such as those for greeting and departure, have become familiar in many other cultures. (Jackson, 2014).

Thumbs-up may be an insult

Head Movements

Bowing is a nonverbal greeting ritual that is more common in Asian cultures than in Western cultures, but the head nod, which is a common form of acknowledgment in many cultures, is actually an abbreviated bow. Japan is considered a noncontact culture, which refers to cultural groups in which people stand farther apart while talking, make less eye contact, and touch less during regular interactions. Because of this, bowing is the preferred nonverbal greeting over handshaking. Bows vary based on status, with higher status people bowing the least. For example, in order to indicate the status of another person, a Japanese businessperson may bow deeply. An interesting ritual associated with the bow is the exchange of business cards when greeting someone in Japan. This exchange allows each person to view the other’s occupation and title, which provides useful information about the other’s status and determines who should bow more. Since bowing gives each person a good view of the other person’s shoes, it is very important to have clean shoes that are in good condition, since they play an important part in initial impression formation.

Eye Contact

In some cultures, avoiding eye contact is considered a sign of respect. Such eye contact aversion, however, could be seen as a sign that the other person is being deceptive, is bored, or is being rude. Some Native American nations teach that people should avoid eye contact with elders, teachers, and other people with status. This can create issues in classrooms when teachers are unaware of this norm and may consider a Native American student’s lack of eye contact as a sign of insubordination or lack of engagement, which could lead to false impressions that the student is a troublemaker or less intelligent.

Eye contact is often included as a topic within proxemics as it tends to regulate interpersonal distance. Direct eye contact tends to shorten the sense of distance, while an averted gaze increases it. In many cultures, such as in many Asian countries, avoiding eye contact conveys respect. In some situations, making eye contact communicates that one is paying attention. Breaking off eye contact can be a signal of disinterest or even rudeness. Within the US, different ethnic groups have been found to follow different norms in the use of eye contact to regulate conversations. African-Americans maintain eye contact when speaking but avert their gaze when listening, but just the opposite is true for European Americans (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978). This distinction can lead to conflict:

Interethnic expectancy violations exist when African Americans expect the European Americans to look them in the eyes when speaking but instead receive “non-responsiveness” or “indifference” cues. European Americans, on the other hand, may view the direct eye gaze during speaking as “confrontational” or “aggressive” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p.126).

In both pluralistic societies and in cross-cultural encounters, being mindful of variations in this area is important. Nora Dresser’s book, Multicultural Matters (2005), chronicles how Korean-American shopkeepers, who did not make eye contact with their customers, were perceived as disrespectful, something contributing to the open confrontation taking place in US urban centers between some Asians and African-Americans. In some contexts in the US, such as in urban areas among teens and young adults, looking directly at someone can be seen as a provocation, reflected in the term “mad-dogging” (Remland et al., 2015).


Facial Expressions

Some cultures tend to be much more expressive and rich in their use of body language than others. Italians and Mediterraneans in general are normally placed in that category, while northern Europeans and Asians are seen as more restrained in their use of gestures. It is often claimed that facial expressions – called affects displays – tend to be universal, the idea being that expressing basic emotions is an elemental, instinctive behavior common to all humans. This idea goes back to Charles Darwin (1872) who claimed all humans express emotion in the same way. This was later contradicted by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead (1975). It wasn’t until the 1960s that so-called “universality studies” were conducted by Paul Ekman and others. In a series of experiments involving participants from a variety of cultures, they showed that there were six universal expressions — anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and surprise (Ekman, 1972). Later, a seventh expression, contempt, was added (Ekman & Heider, 1988). As the studies involved people from industrialized countries, who may have learned to interpret faces from mass media, other studies were conducted among tribal groups in New Guinea, which came to similar results (Ekman & Friesen, 1971). An interesting experiment conducted with blind athletes produced the same results as their sighted colleagues (Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009). Because the blind athletes could not have learned the behaviors, one can assume there is an innate capacity to display facial expressions.

Joy is expressed the same across cultures

What causes particular emotions and determines their intensity can be quite different, both personally and culturally. It is also the case that in many contexts we are able to assert control over our expressions. Codes of general conduct, politeness, or social harmony may influence the public display of emotions. This was shown in a cross-cultural experiment (Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989), which studied expressions of Japanese and US students while watching emotionally disturbing films. When both groups of young people were among themselves, they showed the same expressions. However, when the Japanese students were with an older, male observer, they displayed neutral expressions or even smiled, while the US students continued to display the same negative emotions. Ekman and Friesen (1969) coined the term cultural display rules to describe such cultural differences in facial expressions. The concept explains the difference in expressions of the Japanese students in the experiment, as due to the cultural mandate in Japan of managing and minimizing expressions of feelings in the presence of a third party. In Japan it is culturally appropriate to hide unhappiness by smiling or embarrassment by laughing. While weeping in public is considered in Japan to be inappropriate, in Middle Eastern or Latin American cultures it is normal to express one’s emotions openly and visibly.

Using the concept of cultural display rules, Matsumoto (1990) developed a theory of the expression of emotions that incorporates Hofstede’s taxonomies, particularly as they relate to individualism versus collectivism. According to the theory, because individualistic cultures encourage and reward self-expression, individuals in those cultures are free to express fully and instinctively their feelings, whether they be positive or negative. On the other hand, those in collectivistic cultures are bound by conventions of the collective good and social harmony to regulate their expression of emotion when not alone. Matsumoto also incorporates the concept of power distance:

High power-distance cultures endorse displays of emotion that reinforce hierarchical relations (i.e., status reminders), such as showing anger toward a low-status person or appeasing a high-status person (e.g., smiling). Low power-distance cultures embrace egalitarian values and teach the importance of treating people as equals. Thus, there is less pressure in these cultures for members to adjust displays of emotion according to the status of another person. (Remland et al., 2014)

High power distance cultures tend also to be labeled collectivistic; that would include most Middle-Eastern, Latin American, African and southern European countries. Low power/individualistic cultures are considered to be South Africa, North America, Australia, and northern Europe (Hofstede, 1980). As always, in such broad-stroke generalizations, caution is needed in applying these labels to individuals. While dominant cultural forces may be powerful, they may be contradicted and potentially negated by values associated with group membership, whether those be ethnic, regional, or other. It is also the case that individual personalities play a significant role in the degree to which emotions are displayed or suppressed. The patterns we’ve identified in nonverbal behavior should be seen as examples not as absolutes. Being aware of such potential variations can be helpful in adjusting expectations and suspending judgments.


As we’ve learned, touch behaviors are important during initial interactions, and cultural differences in these nonverbal practices can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Shaking hands as a typical touch greeting, for example, varies among cultures (Pease & Pease, 2004). It is customary for British, Australian, German, and US American colleagues to shake hands when seeing each other for the first time and then to shake again when departing. In the United States, colleagues do not normally shake hands again if they see each other again later in the day, but European colleagues may shake hands with each other several times a day. Once a certain level of familiarity and closeness is reached, US American colleagues will likely not even shake hands daily unless engaging in some more formal interaction, but many European colleagues will continue to shake each time they see each other. Some French businesspeople have been known to spend up to thirty minutes a day shaking hands. The squeezes and up-and-down shakes used during handshakes are often called “pumps,” and the number of pumps used in a handshake also varies among cultures. Although the Germans and French shake hands more often throughout the day, they typically only give one or two pumps and then hold the shake for a couple of seconds before letting go. Brits tend to give three to five pumps, and US Americans tend to give five to seven pumps. This can be humorous to watch at a multinational business event, but it also affects the initial impressions people make of each other. A US American may think that a German is being unfriendly or distant because of his or her single hand pump, while a German may think that a US American is overdoing it with seven.

Contact cultures are cultural groups in which people stand closer together, engage in more eye contact, touch more frequently, and speak more loudly. Italians are especially known for their vibrant nonverbal communication in terms of gestures, volume, eye contact, and touching, which not surprisingly places them in the contact culture category. Italians use hand motions and touching to regulate the flow of conversations, and when non-Italians don’t know how to mirror an Italian’s nonverbals they may not get to contribute much to the conversation, which likely feeds into the stereotype of Italians as domineering in conversations or over-expressive. For example, Italians speak with their hands raised as a way to signal that they are holding the floor for their conversational turn. If their conversational partner starts to raise his or her hands, the Italian might gently touch the other person and keep on talking. Conversational partners often interpret this as a sign of affection or of the Italian’s passion for what he or she is saying. In fact, it is a touch intended to keep the partner from raising his or her hands, which would signal that the Italian’s conversational turn is over and the other person now has the floor. It has been suggested that in order to get a conversational turn, you must physically grab their hands in midair and pull them down. While this would seem very invasive and rude to northern Europeans and US Americans, it is a nonverbal norm in Italian culture and may be the only way to get to contribute to a conversation (Pease & Pease, 2004).


The volume at which we speak is influenced by specific contexts and is more generally influenced by our culture. In European countries like France, England, Sweden, and Germany, it is not uncommon to find restaurants that have small tables very close together. In many cases, two people dining together may be sitting at a table that is actually touching the table of another pair of diners. Most US Americans would consider this a violation of personal space, and Europeans often perceive US Americans to be rude in such contexts because they do not control the volume of their conversations more. Since personal space is usually more plentiful in the United States, Americans are used to speaking at a level that is considered loud to many cultures that are used to less personal space. I have personally experienced both sides of this while traveling abroad. One time, my friends and I were asked to leave a restaurant in Sweden because another table complained that we were being loud. Another time, at a restaurant in Argentina, I was disturbed, as were the others dining around me, by a “loud” table of Americans seated on the other side of the dining area. In this case, even though we were also Americans, we were bothered by the lack of cultural awareness being exhibited by the other Americans at the restaurant. These examples show how proxemics and vocalics can combine to make for troubling, but hopefully informative, nonverbal intercultural encounters.


Cultural norms for personal space vary much more than some other nonverbal communication channels such as facial expressions, which have more universal similarity and recognizability. We’ve already learned that contact and noncontact cultures differ in their preferences for touch and interpersonal distance. Countries in South America and southern Europe exhibit characteristics of contact cultures, while countries in northern Europe and Southeast Asia exhibit noncontact cultural characteristics. Because of the different comfort levels with personal space, a Guatemalan and a Canadian might come away with differing impressions of each other because of proxemic differences. The Guatemalan may feel the Canadian is standoffish, and the Canadian may feel the Guatemalan is pushy or aggressive.


The United States and many northern and western European countries have a monochronic orientation to time, meaning time is seen as a commodity that can be budgeted, saved, spent, and wasted. Events are to be scheduled in advance and have set beginning and ending times. Countries like Spain and Mexico have a polychronic orientation to time. Appointments may be scheduled at overlapping times, making an “orderly” schedule impossible. People may also miss appointments or deadlines without offering an apology, which would be considered very rude by a person with a monochronic orientation to time. People from cultures with a monochronic orientation to time are frustrated when people from polychromic cultures cancel appointments or close businesses for family obligations. Conversely, people from polychromic cultures feel that US Americans, for example, follow their schedules at the expense of personal relationships (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).

Low-Context vs. High-Context Cultures

In chapter one, we discussed high and low context cultures. Below we will address how this influences nonverbal communication.

High-Context Cultures

In high-context cultures (such as those in Japan, China, Korea, and Arab countries), communication relies heavily on non-verbal, contextual, and shared cultural meanings. In other words, high-context communicators attach great importance to everything that surrounds the explicit message, including interpersonal relationships, non-verbal cues, and physical and social settings. Information is transmitted not through words alone but also through non-verbal cues such as gestures, voice inflection, and facial expression, which can have different meanings in different cultures. Eye contact, for example, which is encouraged in North America, may have ambiguous meaning or be considered disrespectful in certain high-context cultures. Meaning is determined not by what is said but by how it is said and by how social implications such as the communicator’s status and position come into play.

For high-context cultures, language is a kind of social lubricant, easing and harmonizing relations that are defined according to a group or collectivist orientation where “we” rather than “I” is the key to identity. Because directness may be thought of as disrespectful, discussions in high-context cultures can be circuitous, circling key issues rather than addressing them head-on. Communicating with high-context cultures can require you to focus on politeness strategies that demonstrate your respect for readers and listeners.

Comparing Communication Styles in Low- and High-Context Cultures

Low Context High Context
Tend to prefer direct verbal interaction Tend to prefer indirect verbal interaction
Tend to understand meaning at one level only Tend to understand meanings embedded at many sociocultural levels
Are generally less proficient in reading nonverbal cues Are generally more proficient in reading nonverbal cues
Value individualism Value group membership
Rely more on logic Rely more on context and feeling
Employ linear logic Employ spiral logic
Say ‘no’ directly Talk around point; avoid saying no
Communication in highly structured messages, provide details, stress literal meaning Communication is simple, sometimes ambiguous, messages; understand visual messages readily

Note: Comparison of low- and high-context cultures reprinted from Business communication: Process & product (p. 64) by M.E. Guffey, D. Lowey, K. Rhodes, K., & P. Rogin. [5]

Low-Context Cultures

Communicators in low-context cultures (such as those in Germany, Scandinavia, and North America) convey their meaning exclusive of the context of a situation. Meaning depends on what is said- the literal content of the message- rather than how it is said. Information has to be explicit and detailed for the message to be conveyed without distortion. This means more verbal communication is needed. Conclusions are explicitly stated. Effectively communicating within this culture, therefore, requires messaging that is perceived as direct and explicit.

Nonverbal Expectancy Violation Theory

As in other areas tied to cultural values and behaviors, people develop an expectation of conformity with the conventions of the culture, in this case with the unwritten rules of nonverbal behavior. In the US, we don’t expect women to wear headscarves as normal everyday attire. We do expect to shake hands upon meeting someone for the first time, which may not happen if, as a non-related man, we are meeting a Muslim woman. Such occurrences are, in the formulation of Judee Burgoon (1978), violations of nonverbal expectancy. According to this theory, people have expectations about the appropriateness of nonverbal behavior, which is learned and culturally driven. When these expectations are violated, it produces a reaction she describes as “arousal”, which can be physiological or cognitive, positive or negative. Our reaction depends on the severity of the violation, the nature of the person (such as attractiveness), and the implicit message associated with the violation. The context and the person will determine our reaction. If a person standing too close at a party (thereby violating personal space) is attractive and well groomed, the reaction is likely to be quite different than if that person is perceived as slovenly and unattractive.

Reactions to violations of nonverbal codes depend as well on the nature of our communicative and cultural environment. If we are accustomed to high-context communications, we may be more dependent on nonverbal messages and are therefore more adept at decoding nonverbal behavior. In that case, for example, silence might be evaluated positively and perceived quite differently than it is in cultures where periods of silence in a conversation run counter to expectations. In intercultural communication contexts, violations of expectations by a non-native could be seen as naïve/endearing or strange/rude depending on how we view that person. Using Hofstede’s cultural categories, Burgoon points out that violating norms in high uncertainty avoidance cultures is likely to be less acceptable. On the other hand, countries with lower power distance may be more flexible in terms of rules about verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

In the South Asian countries, sitting with one’s back towards someone older in age or authority, or having the soles of one’s feet face someone older in age or stature or authority, or books – the source of knowledge, or the altar, is considered very rude (Malik, personal communication, September 18, 2017). That is the reason why one is unlikely to find bookshelves or altars at the feet of the bed or against or on the wall facing the feet of the bed. It is also considered inappropriate to have an altar or, occasionally, the photographs of one’s ancestors in a bedroom that is likely to be used as a conjugal bedroom.

One of the cultural norms that may lead to adverse reactions is the public display of affection. In most Western cultures, there has long been acceptance of heterosexual couples touching and kissing in public. The degree to which this occurs differs. Researchers have found that this is more common, for example, among French and Italian young couples than in the US (Field, 1999; DiBiase & Gunnoe, 2004). Acceptance of homosexual couples is widespread today in many Western countries, but not in many other parts of the world. In most Muslim cultures, the strict separation of unmarried people disallows even heterosexual contact in public. In India, some public displays of affection are taboo. In 2007, US actor Richard Gere faced widespread condemnation in India, after kissing Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at a televised fund-raising event. A photo of the kiss made front-page news across India, and effigies and photos of both Gere and Shetty were burned. An Indian court issued an arrest warrant for Gere, as he had “transgressed all limits of vulgarity” (Indian Court, 2007).

Richard Gere kisses Shilpa Shetty

It is of course not possible to know all the ins and outs of nonverbal transgressions in every country. On the other hand, it is certainly possible to be informed about the cultural practices in countries which we plan to visit or among local communities with whom we are likely to have contact. To the extent possible, we should act in accordance with the cultural expectations. That might mean taking off shoes before entering a home, or dressing more modestly then we would normally. On the other hand, we may oppose particular practices for religious, political, or philosophical reasons, and consciously refuse to adapt to local customs. That might mean, for example, women not accepting the prescribed cultural role in behavior, bearing, or dress expected in a particular culture. In general, it is good practice to anticipate nonverbal expectations to the degree possible. Even if we don’t know the specifics of expectations in a given culture, we can certainly observe and learn. Burgoon’s theory suggests that if we are well-intentioned, yet unaware of specific practices, it is likely others will be lenient in overlooking transgressions. In fact, it may be that expectations for foreigners in this regard are different than they are for natives. Koreans, for example, would likely not expect foreigners be familiar with the intricacies of bowing as they interface with Korean social hierarchies.

Nonverbal Gender Communication

Overall, men and women tend to behave in relatively consistent ways. However, as a product of social conditioning, and in order to appease long-held social customs that have developed around gender binaries, there are some documented differences in the ways that most men and women interact. This is particularly true when they are interacting with other members of their own gender.

Due to the normalized factors of gender expectations among women and men, females are socialized to be more accommodating and emotionally intuitive regarding interpersonal skills. Also, because of societal norms and social construction, men are less likely to get physically close to other men, whereas women are more accepting of being touched by other women. While men may not touch each other or be in close proximity when communicating as much as women, it’s often acceptable to chest bump a teammate or give him a slap on the buttocks in an athletic competition. The context matters. Also important are the cultural norms that vary from country to country or ethnicity to ethnicity. European cultures tend to communicate with less distance than in the United States. Proximity also varies between Northern Europe to Southern Europe or from North America to South America. The frequency of handshakes, hugs, and kisses varies from region to region, and culture to culture.

The differences between men and women sharing a household are not limited to parenting. Studies also show that the distribution of household work remains uneven between men and women, with women straddled with the majority of household chores, despite spending equal amounts of time outside the home earning income. This inequity has far-reaching consequences. Scholars have found that in households where both partners view their chores as being evenly shared, both partners are also more likely to report high satisfaction with their sex life (Gager & Yabiku, 2010).

One reason for the disparities we see in how households divide time by gender may be that different genders have been acculturated to approach their bonding activities differently (Endendijk, et al., 2017). Whereas men are taught from youth how to bond through shared structured activities like sports, or imaginary play where the roles are assigned, women are typically raised to value communication as the primary means of bonding. Consider for example, the difference between a girl being taught to play with her dolls through imaginary chat or tea times, and little boys being steered toward video games, or a shootout between designated cowboys and Indians (Wood, 2012; Kimmel, 2013).

Speech Communities

One way that theorists have approached the differences in communication between genders is through the framework of speech communities. Julia Wood (2009) discusses the differences in how men and women use language by theorizing that they adopt different speech communities. The goal is to understand the role of culture in creating a set of norms and practices that are influenced by gender performance. Drawing from Langer’s postulation of “discourse communities” (Langer, 1953; Ghosh, 1979) and Labov’s discussion of “speech communities” (1974), Wood formulates the idea of gendered speech communities. The basis of any speech community is a set of shared beliefs and practices that are influenced by history and the experiences in an environment and how these factors over time develop unique characteristics of communication practices within the group. Wood explains that “socialization is a gendered process in which boys and girls are encouraged to develop masculine and feminine identities” (2009, p. 19). The goal of understanding gendered speech communities is to explore how socialization creates these specific patterns of communication among females and males.

To be a part of a gendered speech community does not imply that you identify as that gender, or that you perform that gender role on a routine basis. Instead, the notion of a gendered speech community suggests that certain broad patterns of communication and specific practices of communication can be tied to either masculine or feminine gender performances, based on long-standing traditions, and drawn from the historical research on gender communication, which was most often conducted under the presumption of a naturally occurring gender binary (Wood, 2012).

Today, we view speech communities as a useful way to examine still prevalent communication practices that may be employed for different reasons, regardless of sex, or gender identity, but that still convey gendered meaning in our society, and/or accord with social expectations based on gender. In other words, these are gendered practices that may be theoretically passé, even though they remain practically consistent.

Feminine Speech Communities

People who communicate in the feminine speech community tend to value verbal communication primarily as a means of building and maintaining relationships through the sharing of personal experiences, ideas, or concerns. For this reason, the rituals of talk in the feminine speech community differ from those in the masculine speech community and are called relational talk. Women have historically been identified in large part by their communication practices, beginning with the supposition that women enjoy talking more than men, and that they crave talk more than men do. Research shows that in fact men and women communicate verbally an equal amount, though they may tend to communicate in different ways overall, and for different purposes (Wood, 2012).

To begin, members of the feminine speech community view verbal communication as an opportunity to express their own identities, and to build relationships through acts of mutual disclosure that demonstrate trust. Female socialization presents different communication patterns than males beginning with childhood games. Wood (2009) explains how girls’ games involve smaller groups with less rigid rules and goals. Girls’ games are more fluid and made up as the game unfolds, in direct contrast to the individualistic nature of boys’ games. Due to the lack of “external rules to settle disputes,” girls learn to cooperate and communicate with each other in a collaborative fashion. Girls’ games are more focused on process than content with sensitivity to feelings. Criticism, exclusion of others, and outdoing the competition are not acceptable behavior. The focus is less on achieving a goal. The goal is communication itself as girls strive to create an inclusive environment.

In the feminine speech community, it is common to relate stories of past experiences and to do so by providing specific details, in order to create opportunities for others to relate, or find common threads that can lead to a meaningful response. In this community, relationships tend to revolve around sharing of information, rather than sharing activities, and for this reason, studies have found that people in the feminine speech community tend to maintain relationships with others, even when they are separated by vast distances geographically (Wood, 2012).

Into adulthood women use communication to “maintain relationships with others…learn themselves and share with others” (Wood, 2009, p. 21). Wood (2009) breaks feminine communication down into seven features or qualities:

  • Maintaining relationships
  • Equality
  • Showing support
  • Conversational “maintenance” work
  • Responsiveness
  • Personal concrete style
  • Tentativeness

Because the feminine speech community values the building and maintenance of relationships through verbal communication, they are also more likely than members of the masculine speech community to use their talk as a way of offering support to others. In part, this is why members of the feminine speech community are more apt to inquire about issues relating to family, health, and well-being in their conversations, because these inquiries can help them determine if support is needed by their conversation partner. Sometimes the feminine speech community provides support, not just by offering comforting or affirming statements, but also by listening to the other person and allowing them a chance to process their feelings and thoughts in an environment absent of judgment or critique (Wood, 2012).

Masculine Speech Communities

As Wood (2012) theorizes, the masculine speech community approaches verbal communication more pragmatically. Members of the masculine speech community use talk instrumentally in order to achieve goals. In this community, members share information in order to accomplish tasks- even if the task is something like, starting a relationship. For example, someone from the masculine speech community might view the conversation they make on a first date as a necessary prelude to advancing the relationship to the second date, rather than as an opportunity to share for sharing’s sake. For them, the conversation is framed as a win/lose scenario, and their mind is likely working hard to ensure that when they speak they say the ‘right thing’ in order to satisfy their date’s expectations, and succeed as a dinner partner.

Gendered patterns of communication begin in childhood with the games children play. For boys, the games often involve large groups, are competitive, and rely on strict guidelines and rules (Wood, 2012). Boys’ games are about asserting dominance, standing out, and being better than the other players. These factors have a direct impact on communication development as boys are taught to assert themselves, compete and attract attention. Since boys are taught to be competitive and dominant, weakness and vulnerability are unacceptable. Within a team context, individuality is still important because the individual skill set is highly valued. The emphasis on being strong, competitive, and invulnerable starts a pattern of communication practices that are more impersonal and focused on achieving an explicit goal.

Because the masculine speech community engages with verbal communication in a less spontaneous and more instrumental talk fashion, it is no surprise that its members also use verbal communication in a more competitive manner—engaging in verbal and paralanguage tactics designed to one-up their conversation partners, especially during a disagreement. Examples of such competitive tactics include interrupting, scoffing, raising their volume, and using sarcastic tones unnecessarily (Wood, 2012; Greenwood, 2017). Often, these behaviors may not be consciously motivated by competition; rather it is a product of how the community views the purpose and value of talk—as a means by which goals are achieved. In that context, these kinds of aggressive behaviors demonstrate implied values like dominance, bravery, and intellectual superiority (Wood, 2012).

Masculine speech communities emphasize goals, assertions, preserving independence and enhancing status (Wood, 2009). By respecting others’ independence, males establish boundaries of respect, masculine talk focuses on the elaboration of a skillset or displays of being able to get things done. Men are less likely to express vulnerability or disclose personal information that will make them appear weak or diminish their status. If someone expresses concern, the masculine style is to give problem solving advice.

The following are characteristics of masculine speech communities:

  • Exhibit knowledge
  • Instrumentality
  • Conversational dominance
  • Absolute assertion
  • Abstractness
  • Non-responsiveness

Differences in the socialized communication practices of men and women often create situations where someone misinterprets the other’s meaning. If the codes, norms, and practices are not understood across genders, one may respond in a manner that creates a disconnect or conflict. Grasping the various ways feminine and masculine speech communities communicate is important in developing interpersonal relationships.

On the whole, the masculine speech community tends to communicate more concisely, focusing on information they view as pertinent, rather than allowing themselves to disclose information as a way of relating to others. For this reason, there is wide room for miscommunication when they interact with people from the feminine speech community (Wood, 2012). One product of the masculine speech community’s view of talk as competition is mansplaining: a sexist practice in which men attempt to assert dominance by explaining things to women that the women either already know, or didn’t want to know (Solnit, 2017). Not all men are prone to doing this, but men who are also members of the masculine speech community are likely to think that by relating their knowledge of something, even if no one has asked them to do so, proves their intelligence and earns them admiration.

In keeping with their instrumental view of talk, masculine speech community members may also offend people from the feminine speech community if they are seen to be ignoring cues for mutual disclosure or supportive statements. Research finds that in professional situations, people from the masculine speech community tend to misinterpret queries from their co-workers that are meant to start a conversation by assuming the co-worker needs them to solve a problem (Yoshimura & Hayden, 2007). This is one of the most common sources of conflict between the two speech communities. Where members of the feminine speech community may disclose a problem or obstacle they face in order to solicit support, members of the masculine speech community are likely to view this disclosure as an opportunity to fix the problem by providing unwanted advice (Wood, 2012).

Key Takeaways

  • Although some of our nonverbal signals appear to be more innate and culturally universal, many others vary considerably among cultures, especially in terms of the use of space (proxemics), eye contact (oculesics), and touch (haptics).
  • Rather than learning a list of rules for cultural variations in nonverbal cues, it is better to develop more general knowledge about how nonverbal norms vary based on cultural values and to view this knowledge as tools that can be adapted for use in many different cultural contexts.
  • In terms of gender, most of the nonverbal differences are exaggerations of biological differences onto which we have imposed certain meanings and values. M


Byron, K., Sophia Terranova, and Stephen Nowicki Jr., “Nonverbal Emotion Recognition and Salespersons: Linking Ability to Perceived and Actual Success,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 37, no. 11 (2007): 2600–2619.

DePaulo, P. J., “Applications of Nonverbal Behavior Research in Marketing and Management,” Applications of Nonverbal Behavior Theories and Research, ed. Robert S. Feldman (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992), 63.

Martin, J. N. and Thomas K. Nakayama, Intercultural Communication in Contexts, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 271.

Pease, P. and Barbara Pease, The Definitive Book of Body Language (New York, NY: Bantam, 2004), 112–13.

Riggio, R. E., “Social Interaction Skills and Nonverbal Behavior,” in Applications of Nonverbal Behavior Theories and Research, ed. Robert S. Feldman (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992), 15.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Exploring Relationship Dynamics Copyright © 2021 by Maricopa Community College District is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book