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Is Body Language Universal?

In 1967, Albert Mehrabian published a groundbreaking research paper that established the 7%-38%-55% rule. This rule states that, in decoding messages about positive and negative feelings, only 7% of our conclusions come from the words spoken by the person we’re listening to. 38% comes from tone of voice, and the majority – a hefty 55% – comes from body language.

While the numbers cited in Mehrabian’s study are controversial, it is still widely agreed that non-verbal cues play an important role in determining meaning in matters of emotional communication. So imagine a person saying, “I feel great,” but their tone of voice is flat. They avoid eye contact and display closed body language, such as slumped shoulders and a downward tilted head. All those non-verbal messages tend to overrule the verbal message. We end up believing that the person does not “feel great,” even though they’ve just said they do.

It’s obvious that body language plays a vital role in communication. But would those downward-cast eyes and slumped shoulders indicate sadness to a Mixtec speaker in the same way they would to an English speaker? Is body language universal?

The Seven Universal Expressions

In 2017, a group of researchers from Dartmouth College conducted a study to determine how universal emotion-specific facial expressions are. They traveled to a remote area in the highlands of Cambodia, where a pre-literate group known as the Kreung live in isolation. This was important to the investigation, as researchers wanted to be certain that their subjects’ ability to produce or recognize specific facial expressions would not be influenced by interactions with outside groups.

With the help of an interpreter, a well-known performer of Kreung dance and music was asked to act out five scenarios representing five different emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, and sadness. Soundless video recordings were taken, and these were later shown to 28 Dartmouth students and employees. They were asked to identify the emotions from a list of possible options. The results showed an 85% success rate – much higher than would be expected by chance alone. This suggests that certain emotional expressions may in fact be universal.

These findings mirror those of noted American psychologist Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. Ekman created a montage of over 10,000 photographs of facial expressions. He showed them to people in 11 isolated African pre-literate cultures, as well as 20 Western cultures. He found that over 90% of all participants were able to identify emotions such as happiness, disgust, and contempt. Eventually, he developed an index of seven emotions that he deemed universal: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and rest.

Cultural Variations

Though Ekman’s thesis is largely accepted, there is still a great deal of variation in the way body language is used to express ideas and emotions that fall outside of the ‘universal seven.’ Here’s an overview of some of the differences that can be encountered around the world:

Hands: Hand gestures vary widely across cultures. The goodbye wave used in the United States is a way of signaling ‘no’ in many parts of Europe and Latin America. Curling the index finger with the palm facing up is used to say goodbye in Italy, though Americans generally understand it to mean ‘come here.’ In China and East Asia, this same gesture may be used to beckon dogs, but it would be considered extremely impolite to use it with people. In the Philippines, its implications are so severe that it could lead to arrest.

Eye contact: In the West, sustained eye contact is a signal of confidence and attentiveness. Likewise, a lack of eye contact may be taken as disinterest and is therefore considered rude. In places like Spain, Greece, and Arab countries, eye contact tends to be more sustained and intense. However in Arab countries, this standard applies only to people of the same gender, and anything more than a brief glance between men and women is deemed inappropriate. Meanwhile, in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, avoiding eye contact is a way of deferring to one’s elders. Sustained eye contact in these countries may be considered confrontational.

Head: Though nodding is considered a near-universal signal for agreement or approval, there are a few notable exceptions. In Greece and Bulgaria, this gesture indicates just the opposite – a clear ‘no.’

Ears: In Portugal, people tug on their earlobes to indicate that they are enjoying their food. In Italy, this gesture has sexual connotations, and in Spain, it means that someone is not paying for their drinks. In the United States, moving one’s index finger in a circular motion beside the ear is used to suggest that someone is crazy or weird.

Nose: In the West, it is acceptable to heartily blow one’s nose into a handkerchief or tissue, but in Japan, this is frowned upon. The English also tap their nose with their index finger to indicate that something is confidential, while this same gesture means ‘watch out’ in Italy.

Arms: Arm gestures accompany discourse in many countries, including Italy and the United States. Northern Europeans, however, may find such gestures dramatic and insincere, while the Japanese consider broad arm movements impolite.

Legs: Though sitting with one leg crossed over the other is normal in the United States and some parts of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, it’s considered disrespectful to show the sole of your shoe. Similarly, sitting cross-legged, or pretzel-style, in the presence of an elder or higher-status Japanese person, may offend them.

Why Are Some Gestures Universal and Others Cultural?

Overall, we seem to find that emotional expressions, such as happiness, sadness, and disgust, which are made via the muscles of the face, tend to be much more universal than non-emotional expressions, such as agreement, disagreement, or attentiveness, which involve other parts of the body alone or in combination with the face. This suggests these universal expressions may be biologically encoded, which is supported by the fact that both newborns, who are too young to learn them through mimicry, as well as blind people, use the expressions in the same way as adults and see people. In both populations, a bitter taste will evoke a look of disgust, and pain will cause an expression of anguish. Still, as the world becomes more globalized and travel more accessible, it’s a good idea to investigate the do’s and don’ts of body language whenever you’re traveling to a new country or encountering a new culture.

Learn more about ALTA’s language services, including translation, interpreter training, interpretation, and testing.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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