Cross-cultural variation in non-verbal communication between arabs and non-arabs

Author: 
Bouchra QORCHI

We do not only communicate with each other with words but also nonverbally.We gesture with our head or hands, meet someone else’s eyes and turn away, rock back and forth on our chair and even back away when we notice that someone else is trying to breach our private bubble, in conversation. These actions, we assume, are random and incidental. But recently, researchers in non-verbal communication, have discovered that there is a system to them which is as consistent and comprehensible as language, and children absorb its nuances along with verbal language. The way a Moroccan eats or even sits is nothing like the way a French or an American does. In talking, Americans are more likely to end a statement with a droop of the head, or hand, a lowering of the eyelids. They wind up a question with a lift of the hand, a tilt of the chin or a widening of the eyes.
There has been much controversy about the extent to which non-verbal cues and bodily signals are the same in all cultures and the extent to which they vary. There are, on the one hand, those that are considered innate and which are similar in all cultures, as the seven basic facial expressions and those which are culture-bound and which vary across cultures, on the other.
The meaning of hissing (the noise made by blowing the air out of the mouth), for example, is different in different parts of the world. In Morocco, it may be used to (impolitely) call someone whose name one doesn’t know, or it may be used by boys to chat up girls and also to express disbelief.But in England, hissing signals contempt, and in Japan it may be used to show respect for the superiors.
Some common bodily signals are used as social signals in many cultures but with different meanings.
Sticking out the tongue, for example, may be used to ridicule, express embarrassment, wisdom, polite deference, negation and to destroy demons in superstitious belief.
There are cultural differences in the use of non-verbal communication to communicate emotions, to greet others, to present oneself and so on.
In Mediterranean countries, emotions are expressed freely by facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, etc., which is not the case in other parts of the world. The Japanese, for example, are very limited in the use of non-verbal communication. In Japan, the ideal is a controlled, expressionless face, which doesn’t make it easy for others to judge them.
Certain cultures make relatively very little use of many channels, so that the whole non-verbal system must be operating less effectively than it might.
Besides Japan, in Britain, too, many channels are under-used, especially touch, facial expression, smell and gestures. There is very little touching in Britain outside the family. Even greetings do not involve much touch. A simple nod with the head sometimes suffices for greeting acquaintances. In India and China, too, bodily contact is very restrained outside the family context; even in greetings there is very little touching, which is not the case of Arab countries which belong to a touch culture and where one literally envelops the other, holds his hand, looks into his eye and bathe him in his breath.

In this paper I will focus on intercultural non-verbal communication between Arabs, more particularly, Moroccans and non-Arabs, The French and Americans, as a case of study. I will try to show to what extent these different cultures vary in the use they make of particular non-verbal signals. I will tackle eye-behaviour, body posture, gestures, space handling and touch inter-alia.

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