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How Do Nonverbal Communication Methods Convey Respect or Disrespect in Asian Culture?

COML 598 B1

Jared Gillingham

Gonzaga University


The goal of this paper is to determine the effect nonverbal communication plays in

showing signs of respect or disrespect in Asian cultures. The first aim of the paper is to examine

research showing that there are indeed differences in nonverbal communication methods

amongst all cultures, as well as why these differences are important. The paper will then

transition into why it is imperative to specifically focus on how nonverbal communication differs

between American and Asian cultures and what specific differences are among the two groups.

Using a variety of different studies, the paper will then ask if it possible for one cultural group to

learn the nonverbal communication cues used by members of another cultural group and if so,

how this may impact future interactions between cultural groups.


How Do Nonverbal Communication Methods Convey Respect or Disrespect in Asian Culture?

Just as every country as their own language, so too does each country have their own

gestures and symbols. These various forms of nonverbal communication vary tremendously

around the world; what may be an innocent gesture in the United States is seen as incredibly

obscene in another part of the world. As the world continues to become more interconnected, the

importance to not only understand the language but to become consciously aware of body

language while we are in these parts of the world is magnified. An extensive amount of research

has been done to determine how various forms of nonverbal communication varies and can be

learned and exchanged amongst different cultural groups. Within this research, work has been

done involving numerous Asian cultural groups, focusing on not only the ways in which

nonverbal communication differs from a Western standpoint, but also upon how common

meanings of nonverbal communication can be learned. This paper will attempt to dissect this

literature and determine where the variances occur between Western and Asian cultures, as well

as how these variances can be overcome through a learning and understanding of cultural


An Overview of Cultural Differences

As previously mentioned, the meaning of body language varies among cultures around

the world. Dane Archer (1997) suggests that incorrect gestures are fairly common when we visit

countries or interact with cultures different from our own. This is based primarily on what the

assumption that we can always communicate with hand gestures when words fail. However,

Archer asserts that this assumption is false because there is no “universal language of gestures”

(p. 80); that is, there is no gesture that is recognized as having the same meaning in all countries

or across all cultures. Archer uses the example of an American traveler signaling for a place to

find a drink by using a hand gesture to simulate a bottle. “A thirsty traveler using a hand gesture

to simulate a bottle might just as well try yelling ‘beverage’ at the locals. Just as there is no

reason to expect an English word to be recognized internationally, there is no reason to expect an

American hand gesture to be recognized” (p. 80). Archer continues on to say that any attempts to

learn foreign hand gestures from verbal description alone are impossible because these gestures

occur along “so many different dimensions and variables that verbal description is doomed as a

reasonable methodology” (p. 84).

Ren Zhi-peng’s article (2014) builds upon the points in Archer’s article by discussing two

distinct, but common, aspects of body language in detail: eye contact and nonverbal gestures.

Due to the commonality of the use of these types of expression, comparing them is simpler

because they can be found throughout the world, despite having different meaning depending on

location. In America, we rely heavily upon eye contact in conversation and assume that those

who are unwilling to look us in the eye are untrustworthy. Many other countries hold similar

views towards the importance of eye contact. However, there are a significant number of cultures

that hold the exact opposite point of view, as Zhi-peng writes: “In a number of places … direct

eye contact from child to adult is not allowed. Instead, children are expected to look down as a

sign of respect for elders” (p. 1031). He continues to say that in Bangladesh, everyone - even

adults - must show respect for an older people or person of a higher status by “keeping eyes close

to the ground and speaking only when spoken to” (p. 1031).

These differences continue to arise when examining nonverbal gestures as well. For

example, the symbol commonly known as “OK” in American culture means “worthless” or

“zero” among the French. The thumbs up gesture, meant to signify approval in a number of

countries, means rejection in Bangladesh and should always be done with both thumbs in Kenya

(p. 1032). While many people often consider learning important words or phrases when they visit

another country, Zhi-peng’s article suggests that being aware of what messages we are

conveying with our body language is equally important. Interacting with members of other

cultures is a daily occurrence for many Americans and being cognizant of body language only

serves to make these interactions better.

Nonverbal Communication in Asian Culture

With over 4.5 billion people currently living in the continent (“Population of Asia”,

2018) and another 20 million in America tracing their roots back to Asian countries (Lopez,

Ruiz, & Patten, 2017), it is now more important than ever to ensure that those around the globe

are able to effectively communicate with both Asian and Asian American cultural groups. As

Archer and Zhi-peng’s research suggests, cultural understanding and communication is most

effective when nonverbal elements are also considered. While it would be foolish to suggest that

nonverbal communication methods are consistent across Asian and Asian American cultures,

various methods employed across these cultures are worth examining.

Contrary to American culture, Asian culture considers avoiding eye contact to be a sign

of respect, such as in Japan, where speakers should look at the listener’s neck or an area other

than the eyes (Zhi-peng, 2014, p. 1031). Persons of Thai heritage also rarely make eye contact,

particularly when there are differences in age or status (Damnet and Borland, 2007, p. 130). As

mentioned previously, various hand gestures that may be harmless in America can be seen as

disrespectful in Asian cultures. The same symbol that means “OK” in the US and “worthless” in

France means “money” in Japan and the US symbol for “good luck” may mean either

“boyfriend” or “screw you” in Japanese culture (Archer, 1997, p. 81). As many Asian cultures

are rooted in Buddhist teachings, value is placed on the ability to avoid expressions of anger,

aggression, or any emotion which may otherwise be construed as negative. The lack of constraint

on English speaking individual’s facial expressions may be interpreted as impolite or insensitive

as a result (Damnet and Borland, 2007, p. 130). Generally speaking, Asian cultures refrain from

forms of touching which might be common in other parts of the world. Many Asian cultures

consider the head to be a sacred part of the body and believe that touching another person there is

taboo (Bernstein, 2017). In business relations, prior research suggests that East Asians tend to be

more cooperative when dealing with in-group conflict, in addition to using more restrained

gestures and postures, as compared to North Americans (Semnani-Azad and Adair, 2011, p. 456-


Is it Possible to Learn Other Culture’s Nonverbal Communication Methods?

While Archer’s (1997) research suggests that nonverbal communication cannot be taught

via verbal description (Archer, 1997, p. 84), other aspects of both Archer’s and Damnet and

Borland’s (2007) research suggest nonverbal communication can be captured and could be

learned by members of other cultures through a variety of visual methods, all with varying levels

of success. In Archer’s research, he discovered that English as a Second Language students were

“eager to learn American norms of nonverbal behavior – our unwritten ‘rules’ governing eye

contact, touching, comfortable speaking distance, acceptable public seating patterns, etc.”

(Archer, 1997, p. 86). Additionally, these same students were equally eager to share their own

cultural gestures. Archer created a documentary, A World of Gestures, which visually shows the

gestures of these various cultural groups.

Damnet and Borland’s research investigates the extent to which Thai university students

studying English are able to develop their knowledge and skills in nonverbal communication.

This research was conducted by making these students watch three films, Erin Brockovich, While

You Were Sleeping, and Paperback Hero and analyze various interactions to interpret the

displays of nonverbal communication within them. One group received teaching via video

lectures from Dane Archer, explicitly focused on nonverbal communication in English covering

five topics: facial expressions, bodily appearance and communication, gestures, vocal

paralanguage, and cultural differences in nonverbal communication. The second group received

no explicit training in nonverbal communication and were instead introduced to vocabulary

relevant to the films and language development-oriented activities. Both groups took a pre-test

and post-test to measure understanding of nonverbal communication methods presented in the


The results of the survey showed that the group which received training in nonverbal

communication, despite scoring lower on the initial test, significantly outperformed students in

the group which did not receive training on their post-tests. However, both groups experienced a

positive increase in their accuracy in interpreting nonverbal communication methods used in

these films (Damnet and Borland, 2007, p. 141). Additionally, their research suggests that those

who received this formal training were able to obtain a level of understanding roughly equivalent

to that of native speaking American college students (p. 143), while outperforming the American

English-speaking students in some areas (p. 145). Overall, this study suggests that film is an

accessible medium which an English language learner might use to enhance understanding of

nonverbal communication methods, provided it is done in tandem with a curriculum explicitly

focused on nonverbal communication codes. The results also suggest that it is possible for

members of other cultural groups to learn nonverbal communication codes of another cultural

group through formal training, which had not previously been suggested (p. 145).


As the world continues to grow more interconnected, we must collectively realize that

cultural nonverbal communication methods are equally as important to understand as verbal

communication methods. While more research needs to be done on the subject, studies such as

those done by Damnet and Borland suggest that it is possible to learn and become well-versed in

nonverbal communication codes of other cultures. As a result, it is imperative that we continue to

not only realize these differences in gestures and body language among cultures but to attempt to

learn them as we might do with a language. The future success of world defining interactions

may depend upon it.



Archer, D. (1997). Unspoken diversity: Cultural differences in gestures. Qualitative

Sociology, 20(1), 79-105.

Bernstein, R. (2017, March 28). 7 Cultural differences in nonverbal communication. In Point

Park University.

Damnet, A., & Borland, H. (2007). Acquiring nonverbal competence in English language

contexts: The case of Thai learners of English viewing American and Australian

films. Journal Of Asian Pacific Communication, 17(1), 127-148.


Lopez, G., Ruiz, N. G., & Patten, E. (2017, September 8). Key facts about Asian Americans, a

diverse and growing population. In Pew Research Center.

Population of Asia (2018). In Worldometers. Retrieved April 14, 2018.

Semnani-Azad, Z., & Adair, W. L. (2011). The display of 'dominant' nonverbal cues in

negotiation: The role of culture and gender. International Negotiation, 16(3), 451-479.


Zhi-peng, R. (2014, December). Body language in different cultures. US-China Foreign

Language, 12(12), 1029-1033.