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How to Interpret Nonverbal Communication Across Cultures

How to Interpret Nonverbal Communication Across Cultures

Posted on: April 15, 2024 by admin

If you’ve ever travelled overseas, you’ve likely come across nonverbal customs unique to your destination country. While eye contact is considered friendly in Australian culture, in Japan it may be perceived as rude or confrontational. In Australia, you may feel uncomfortable with physical closeness during interactions, but in countries like Spain or Italy, proximity during conversations is often expected. As you can see from these examples, interpreting nonverbal communication across cultures requires sensitivity, awareness and an understanding of cultural differences. In this blog, we’ll explore some key ways that you can effectively interpret nonverbal cues so that you can avoid having unintentionally awkward conversations. 

Educate Yourself About Cultural Norms

While it may seem obvious, conducting your own research on cultural norms is a great way to avoid nonverbal miscommunication. Don’t assume that because a gesture has completely positive associations in your culture it should be ok in another. For example, in Australia, the “thumbs up” gesture can signal satisfaction, agreement or approval, but in some Middle Eastern countries like Iran, this gesture may be considered dismissive or even obscene. Understand that gestures, facial expressions, and body language can have different meanings in different cultures, and don’t presume that these mean the same thing universally.


If you are interacting with business partners, patients or clients of another cultural background, you must have an awareness of what’s considered appropriate and what could be considered offensive when it comes to nonverbal communication. If you’re ever unsure, our on-site interpreting services are a great option for you or your business. Our NAATI-certified interpreters are not only trained linguistically but are also experienced in managing nonverbal cues with absolute care and consideration.

Observe and Adapt to Nonverbal Signals

In Australia, we tend to say what we mean and mean what we say. However, in Vietnamese or Malaysian cultures, such directness in conversation may not be as translatable and in fact may be interpreted as blunt or disrespectful. For instance, instead of saying, “Please pass me the salt,” an individual from Vietnam or Malaysia might say, “The salt is over there,” implying that they would like it passed to them. To navigate cultural barriers such as this, it’s important to observe nonverbal cues. During interactions, watch out for changes in nonverbal signals to ensure you’re conducting effective and respectful dialogue. If you think you’ve crossed a line in communication, it’s crucial to acknowledge it promptly. Showing humility and willingness to learn goes a long way in building rapport and understanding across cultures.

Pay Attention to Facial Expressions

Paul Ekman, a psychologist who conducted extensive research on facial expressions, proposed that six basic emotions are universally expressed and recognised: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. Facial expressions can convey a wealth of information, from happiness and agreement to confusion. However, certain contexts can influence the interpretation of such expressions. Namely, in Russian culture, facial expressions may be suppressed or come across as more neutral, due to cultural values like self-control. Whereas in Italy, where the depth of emotional expression is not only normalised but celebrated, facial expressions may be more exaggerated and animated. For this reason, understanding cultural nuances is valuable when interpreting facial expressions. A smile, for instance, can indicate happiness, but it can also mask discomfort or nervousness in certain situations. Therefore, paying attention to facial expressions in conjunction with other verbal and nonverbal cues can provide valuable insights into a person’s emotional state and intentions.

Take Note of Body Language 

Body language is another important aspect of nonverbal communication. The way individuals position their bodies, the gestures they make, and their use of personal space can all convey meaning. While a relaxed posture may be more common in Australian companies, in a German business, good posture is a sign of professionalism. Similarly, gestures such as pointing or crossing one’s arms can have different interpretations depending on the cultural context. As with the other examples above, increasing your awareness and understanding of body language preferences across cultures can be vital for more productive communication. 

Recognise Shifts in Tone of Voice

Tone of voice is another crucial factor to consider when interpreting nonverbal cues. Depending on cultural beliefs and values, the intonation, volume, and rhythm of speech can convey various emotions, attitudes, and intentions. However, it’s essential to recognise that tone of voice can be subjective and influenced by cultural norms and linguistic patterns. Australian English is known for its rising intonation pattern at the end of sentences, which can often make statements sound like questions. This is often referred to as the “Australian question intonation” or “upspeak”. In contrast, word stress in Finnish is placed on the first syllable, with intonation almost always descending from the beginning and end of a sentence. Similarly, variations in volume can indicate emphasis or importance in some cultures, while in others, it may be seen as aggressive. Therefore, when interpreting tone of voice, it’s crucial to consider not only the words being spoken but also the individual differences in speaking styles between cultures.


As you can see from the information above, nonverbal communication between cultures can present several unique challenges. Whether you require on-site or video interpreting services or specific expertise in fields such as medical interpreting, the team at Speak Your Language is here to help! Contact us today to learn more about our certified interpreters and how they can assist you with both verbal and nonverbal interpretation.