Communication 372 – Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

John R. Baldwin

School of Communication

Illinois State University

Updated 5 June 2014

Nonverbal Communication


Background of the Study of NVC:

Like intercultural communication in general, NVC also has its current study (as an academic discipline) in the Foreign Service Institute in the 1950s (see Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz’ 1990 article for these details). Several scholars in that school brought to the understanding of communication a set of new terms (as we shall see below), each with his own focus (“his” is deliberate here—in the 1950s, all of these anthropologist and linguists were men):

·        E. T. Hall—space (proxemics), time (chronomics

·        Ray Birdwhistell—gesture (kinemics)—created the notion of the kineme—a NV gesture with meaning, based on the linguistic notion of the phoneme.

·        George Trager—tone and structure of voice (paralinguistics), and others.

However, the study of NVC is actually much older. David Givens (Center for Nonverbal Studies) cites the first study of NV behavior as Charles Darwin (1872).


I have used several textbooks in the past. The coverage in this website is general and covers much of what is used in our current textbook; however, the organization may be slightly different. Rather than cover every single channel, merely “channel by channel” e.g., touch, facial display of emotion, etc.), I take a “key issue” focus. For your printing purposes, I have moved placement of “Fun websites and links” to the bottom of the page.



Objectives for this Unit:

Towards the exam!

§  Be able to tell the difference b/t the 6 “roles” of NVC (that is, 6 different relationships to verbal comm.)

§  What are the different functions NVC (especially kinesics) can have? Note def of emblem

§  Know the “academic” names for the different channels

§  Know the 3 issues discusses specifically: facial display of emotion, contact cultures, use of silence; know:

o    Method and main findings of 2 on-line studies

o    General summaries of some of the issues (not the findings of specific studies)

o    Meaning and NVC: Attribution

§  Know key bolded terms (and in red) in this Webpage, such as (but not limited to):

o    Display rules

o    Monochronic and polychromic time; formal and informal time

o    The behaviors that constitute “contact cultures

o    Key early NV intercultural theorist

o    Basso’s hypothesis and Braithwaite’s revision

§  Know the main theoretical approaches to NV

o    Use of pattern variables (e.g., Hofstede); general understanding of Matsumoto’s predictions

o    Main line of thought, key terms of EVT




I. Basic Concepts of NVC in Intercultural Communication


Defining Nonverbal Communication:

Scholars give different definitions of NVC, though most have some limitation or another (doesn’t every definition?).


         Def of NVC: “Messages people send to others that do not contain words, such as messages sent through body motions; vocal qualities; and the use of time, space, artifacts, dress, and even smell” (Neuliep, 2006, p. 286)

         When senders OR receivers give meaning? (That is, when behavior has “meaning potential”)

         Not Sign Language, which is a verbal communication system.


One thing we must first see is that any separation of communication into verbal and nonverbal is artificial, as the two occur together and in some relation to each other.


How important is nonverbal communication?

·         Some authors (e.g., Mehrabian, a key researcher of NVC) argue that as much as 90% of our meaning is drawn from NV rather than verbal communication;

·         However, Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, in their classical 1967 book, make a good point: All communication has both a “content” (verbal, digital) and a “relationship” (nonverbal, analog) component (sounds like CTI, right? That’s because CTI borrows from and cites Watzlawick et al.!). The “relationship” component is not all nonverbal, as it can also include verbal nuance, connotation. But the point that the authors make is that in some types of communication (like a physics lecture), the content aspect is most important (though the prof can still deliver the notes in a way that makes you think she is condescending); and in a romantic setting or in the determining of how someone feels about you, you will probably rely much more on the relationship component (though, as we saw in the last unit, in some cultures—but not others—it is also important to use words to clarify or reiterate the relationship. . . ya just gotta tell the other person that you love him or her.)


Relation of NVC to Verbal Communication:

Several authors outline the relationship of nonverbal communication to verbal communication (e.g., Bradford “J” Hall, 2005, Among Cultures). The key to telling some of them apart is to first understand the notion of emblems, something we will return to below. An emblem is a nonverbal gesture that has a specific, generally understood verbal meaning. For example, in the United States, holding up the middle finger with the back of the hand towards the other communicator and all other fingers down and (generally but not always) thumb crossed against the fingers held down, has a very specific verbal content—the gesture stands on it’s own (so to say). [The image at the left poses simply as an example—not a message to be intended or taken personally by any reader!]


With this in mind, we can better understand what Hall calls the “roles” of NV behavior:

·        Repetition: The NV behavior says the same thing as the verbal behavior. For this to occur, the NV must be an emblem (able to stand alone). So, a scowl with the words “I’m angry” is not repetition, as the scowl could have many meanings. But touching one’s elbow in Argentina (which by itself means “tacaño”—or stingy) and saying, sidevanfaElla es tan tacaña(She is so stingy) at the same time would be repeating (or—for you English speakers, holding up the “okay” sign—readily understood by anyone, and also saying “okay”

·        Substitution: The NV behavior replaces the verbal. Again, the NV behavior must be an emblem for this to occur. An example would be the “forearm jerk”—“One hand slapped to the upper arm, and that arm raised with a fist” ( This highly insulting gesture (a larger version of the middle finger, some say) does not need words, and thus can be understood at a distance. Or for those who like more delicate examples, one can give the “thumbs up gesture” [TUG] in Brazil to tell someone everything’s cool (but, unfortunately, in Iraq means something quite different). [For TUG around the world, see this article]

·        Accentuation: The behavior now is more of an illustrator (see below)—such as a “baton” (when, in the U.S.) of shaking one’s finger to make a point or pounding one’s fist on the table. In Internet communication, I might “accent” my point with bolds, underlines, or colors. 030328_Iraq_ThumbsUp

·        Complement: The behavior in this case cannot be an emblem! It is a behavior with no specific verbal meaning, but that works together with (complements) the verbal behavior. For example, if I talk with my hands, moving my hands apart when I tell you how big the fish I caught was, the gesture by itself would be meaningless without the words. They complement each other.

·        Contradiction: Here the behavior need not be an emblem (with exact verbal equivalent) but can be a generally understood behavior, such as looking grumpy but telling your roommate, “I’m fine.” It can even be an “illustrator.” For example, one of my son’s junior high teachers was telling the children they really needed to come to school the last day (one hour of school in which the teacher takes roll, the kids chat for a while, then go home, just so the school can say it met so many days of the semester), while shaking his head with a sarcastic frown on his face.

·        Regulation: These are very subtle gestures that work together with our words to manage (“regulate”) turn-taking in conversation, such as turning our head toward (or away from) the other person, use of our hands or posture, or use of our tone of voice to indicate that we are handing the turn over to the other person. These are often so subtle we may not even be aware we are doing them.



Rules (& Attribution) 

Why is NV behavior so important? For a couple of reasons:

·        Meaning from Verbal and NV communication: We draw a lot of our meaning from NVC. Some sources say as many as 94%, but the study behind these sources may be limited. Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) say that all communication has both a digital and an analogic component. The digital is the actual verbal content (like a digital clock), and the analogic is an “analogue” or “picture” of an idea, like a clock with hands—the NV component (tone of voice, etc.). Certainly, if your romantic partner says “OF COURSE I LOVE YOU!” (shouting and with a sneer), you will take the meaning of the words along with the content. WB&J say that in matters of relationship, we will draw more meaning from the NV. However, in class lectures and such, we will likely draw most of the meaning from the words (even though, as we all know, two teachers can share same content and one can do it with a condescending posture and tone of voice, and the other with warm NV behaviors, illustrating the relationship the teacher perceives with the students!)

·        Attribution: Attribution is when we assign meaning to someone else’s behavior (there is a whole theory about this, but that is beyond our purpose in this page!). The basic idea is that we are often (always?) assigning what we believe to be the meanings behind someone’s behavior. Your mom issues a deep sigh, and you assume she’s tired. Your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse makes a comment about the work around the house and you assume it is a complaint about your laziness. As you know from experience, we are often wrong. Attribution mistakes can be especially easy in intercultural communication. Certainly, we can misunderstand gestures and emblems (the “okay” sign, the “thumbs up gesture”)—but a lot of our misunderstanding will come from much more subtle differences. For example, if I am from a culture where people stand close, and a business traveler will not stand close, I might think she is being cold and distant or that she does not like me. But if I keep closing the distance, she might think I am aggressive.


Channels of NVC and Important Issues in Research

Hall, like many authors, introduces NVC by channel (body, distance, etc.). This section introduces each channel but also three key issues.


Kinesics:  Body language, including posture, facial expression, movement, gesture, etc.


Facial expression of emotion.


Issue #1: Are facial expressions of emotion “universal” or cultural? [Note: one gist of the argument is that if they are cultural, some people believe that supports an evolutionary origin of the species—though the logic does not make sense. A creationist account would also allow for all people to recognize the same emotions]. This is my summary of the research

o   Countless studies over many years (Ekman & Friesen, Boucher, Izard, and others) have demonstrated that at least 6 emotions are recognizable in cultures around the world: sadness, happiness, anger, AS_10disgust, surprise, and fear [I won’t quiz you on which ones they are!]

o   These findings hold true whether or not one sees images of one’s own culture and/or race or of an unknown culture (but seem to be more solid if the cultures have had face-to-face or media exposure), as well as whether the research is closed-ended (choose the emotion) or open-ended (fill in the emotion you think you see).

o   People even recognize and agree upon a 2nd emotion, if a picture has more than one emotion.

o   People from Eastern and Western cultures, however, rate display of emotions differently in terms of severity. Specifically… [fill in finding here from Ekman & Friesen article

o   People not only recognize the different emotions—they also show the emotions the same way.

o   BUT—cultures have different rules for when and how to show emotion (who shows what emotion, to whom, under what circumstances). These are called display rules. For example, one early E&F study looked at Japanese and Americans watching violent films. Both showed the same emotion, but when a researcher sat in the room, the Japanese showed less emotion.

o        Study 1: Know key findings/answers to hypotheses of Ekman & Friesen (and others, 1987):

Ekman, P., Friesen, W.V., O'Sullivan, M., Chan, A., Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, I., et al. (1987). Universals and cultural differences in the judgments of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 53, 712-717.

Research Summary: If one looks only at the tables in the article, one finds that people had high agreement on all 6 of the emotions in all 10 countries (though some were lower than others); in addition, there was high agreement on the 2nd emotion in the emotional blend. In every case, the Westerners perceived the emotions (in the Caucasian models) to be more intense than did the Non-Western cultures.


Summary Notes: Different cultures and co-cultures often have different rules for emotional expression, and these can lead to misunderstanding. One study (Booth-Butterfield & Jordan) found that Black women smiled more when in their own group and reduced smiles by ½ when with White women. White women reversed the pattern, smiling much more (2ce as much) when with the Black women. One could easily see how Black women might find White women to be phony or superficial (why do they smile so much when the are around me?), and White women might feel Black women don’t like them (why don’t they smile as much around me as when they are with Black women). There could be differences in display rules—rules about when, to whom, and how much to show emotion--such as using smiling to cover nervousness, or keeping smiles for “in-group” as opposed to “out-group” behavior. All cultures have display rules. We might mute emotional expression (not show as angry or happy as we feel), “mask” our true emotions (the airplane is having trouble, but the flight attendant keeps smiling!), or exaggerate our emotions (“What a wonderful gift you gave me!”)


Body movements

o   Bows, posture, gait can indicate relative status of communicators, feeling between communicators, and so on.

o   Gestures: We’ve already seen above the importance of emblems in helping to determine the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication. Neuliep (2006) highlights the difference between emblems and illustrators, though there are other gestures as well.

untitledNote: Most often, we think of intercultural difficulties with NV behaviors in terms of gestures. But all of the above are gestures! It is, specifically emblematic gestures, where the gesture has an exact verbal equivalent (like “okay” or “come here”) where meaning can be confused. For example,


Physical Appearance and Dress

This item does not really fit well under kinesics or any other of these areas, as it deals with things such as body adornment, dress/modesty, and so on, rather than gestures or movements of the body. Certainly much could be said about how notions of modesty change from culture to culture, the meanings of body piercings and tattoos as markers of identity, or recent cultural politics over enforcing nonverbal symbols (gang colors in schools, veils in French schools, etc.). But, hey, isn’t this webpage long enough already? An interesting link, randomly placed in text.


Proxemics:  Use of space and territory

·        Distance: Use of space with others and with objects

o   E. T. Hall’s 4 spaces for (American) interaction: public, social, personal, intimate—these change based on topic and relationship, and can vary from culture to culture (what dominant American culture perceives to be “intimate” space (contact to 18 inches) might be “social” space for another culture. [Neuliep places these within his “Environmental Context” chapter]

o   Various factors can influence space (beyond culture)—gender, topic, mood, whether sitting or standing, sex, dyadic composition (whether male-male, male-female, or female-female), racial background of communicators, etc.

·        Territory: Many who study space look at territory. There are, of course, cultural misunderstandings over actual land territory between groups (for example, can land be “owned”?). But there are also other types of territory—primary, secondary, and tertiary. The territory might be the bench I sit on at church (my “seat”), or my place in line. Cultures can differ in each of these as well. When you are in another culture, do you wait in line to be served? When I was in Brazil, if I was eating alone at a fast food restaurant and the restaurant was full, someone would sometimes sit at the other side of the table without asking me. In America, the whole table is my (tertiary) territory. But in Brazil, my territory was considered to be only my side of the table.

·        Touch (Haptics): Touch can also very from culture to culture.

o   There are many different types of touch. A 1976 article by Robert Shuter (I will talk about below) gives a classification scheme for measuring touch that many have used, including touches, holds, spot (quick) touches, spot holds, and s on.

o   Like space, factors such as the sex of the communicators, the topic, the relationship, and so on, can influence how much one touches. Many studies have looked, for example, at how much and where we give touch on different parts of the body for same and opposite sex friends, romantic partners, or parents

·        Body angle: The degree of tightness of the angle. “Zero degrees” would be face-to-face, and 180 degrees would be side-by-side facing in same direction. We say, in America, we like face-to-face, direct communication, but if we maintain a “zero degree” body angle, it is usually perceived as threatening and makes the other person uncomfortable.


Oculesics:  Eye contact. This is important for our second issue, below! Basically, cultures differ on how direct eye contact can be (and, again, eye contact can be influenced by several factors that complicate the influence of culture).


Olfactics:  Sense and use of smell—different cultures like different smells and use smell differently (for example, some cultures try to cover up all bodily smells and some cultures feel they are natural and should not be covered up. Some cultures think Americans stink because of all the meat we eat, etc.)



Issue #2: Contact Cultures: Is it useful to think of cultures as “high/low contact” cultures?

E. T. Hall introduced the notion of contact cultures. High contact cultures are those cultures that prefer a high amount of sensory involvement, specifically, through eye contact, distance, touch, and body angle (and perhaps olfactics). Supposedly, a high-contact culture will engage in:

·        Closer distance between communicators

·        More eye contact

·        Tighter body angle (closer to zero degrees)

·        More touch

High-contact cultures are said to exist in Latin America, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Mediterranean Europe (S. France, Italy, Spain). Low-contact cultures include the Far East (Korea, Japan, China), South Asia (e.g., India, Pakistan), and Northern Europe (e.g., Scandinavia, Germany), with the U.S. in the middle.


The reason this is an issue is that many research studies have begun to chip away at this monolithic notion of contact cultures. For example:

§  Shuter's 1976: People in three different contiguous (side-by-side) Latin American countries—Costa Rica, Panama, and Columbia, demonstrated significant differences in space and touch (with Columbia typically preferring more space and less touch than Panama, which preferred more contact than Costa Rica). Conclusion: Even within a single “high contact” region, behaviors differed from culture to culture.

§  Shuter, 1977: Italy, Germany, U.S.: It’s not as simple as it seems (e.g., dyadic composition (M/M, M/F, F/F), not just culture). Shuter found that, while in one culture, touch in one type of interaction was higher (say males touching males), their touch in another area (e.g., females touching males) might be lower. So, dyadic composition (and other variables) may differ by culture, with cultural specific rules for different types of touch.

§  Sussman & Rosenfeld: Found that people from different cultures, when speaking English (at an American university), actually adjust their space towards American spatial standards.

§  Remland et al. (Reading #2 on-line): Know generally how they did the study, and key finding.


Remland, M. S., Jones, T. S., & Brinkman, H. (1995). Interpersonal distance, body orientation, and touch: effects of culture, gender, and age. The Journal of Social Psychology, 135, 281-297.

Research Summary: Following their camcorder analysis of individuals in everyday situations (that is, naturally occurring behavior!), the authors found mixed results. Remember, they expected Mediterranean to be low contact, Central European to be lower contact. Great Britain cultures would probably be expected to be in the middle. They also looked at sex and at age, but just to show the complexity of the findings, I’ll include only the “contact culture” variables and “culture” (here, national culture)

Distance: English, French, Italian, Greek         >              Scottish, Irish

Body angle: Dutch, Scottish                                             <              English, Greek, Italian


Single touch:  English, French, Dutch             < Italians, Irish, Scottish     <n.s.       Greeks

Dyadic touch: English, Dutch, French                                             <                              Italians, Greeks

Thus, in some cases, the “contact” level was as expected (Italians, Greeks, more dyadic touch than English, Dutch), but in others the findings were not as expected (Irish more single touch than Dutch but no more than Italians; Italians, greater distance than Scottish, Irish). The main point is that this study adds to the complex findings that call into question a blanket, overarching statement about contact cultures.


My conclusion of the findings is that, while there is some general support for “contact culture” idea, there are variations depending on specific channel. In some cases, contact cultures showed more “sensory involvement” than low contact (Greece and Italy over Netherlands and Scotland in touch); sometimes a culture we would expect to be “low contact” actually showing higher contact on some dimension (Irish & Scottish closer distance than Italians & Greeks), giving “limited support” for the contact culture idea. This general conclusion supports Shuter’s work above: While a nice general guideline to NV behavior, the idea of “contact culture” should be used together with other variables (and with knowledge of specific cultures) to understand or predict behavior.


Paralanguage:  Aspects of voice, inflection, and so on that accompany the voice but are not verbal symbols (for example, laughter, clearing throat, coughs, grunts, accent, rate, pitch, pronunciation of words, 


Issue #3: Use of Silence: What does silence mean in different cultures? Is the meaning of silence universal?

One type of NV behavior that is difficult to classify is the use of silence. Often in the United States, we believe that if someone is silent, then they are shy or angry—something is wrong! But many other cultures see silence quite different! For example:

·        Ishii & Bruneau (and many others) talk about how there are different silences, and how silence in some Far Eastern cultures is quite different from silence in the U.S. In the U.S., words and “communication” are given pre-eminence—talk as a solution to many or even most problems, and language itself is given representational status (we believe that there is a close link between language and what it describes, as if words “really” described some reality. Many other cultures feel that language obscures or hides reality, that reality cannot be known through language. Thus, these cultures mistrust language to a degree. Thus, one might prefer silence

o   As a buffer in conversation (to save face), rather than criticizing someone openly

o   As a response to beauty or inspiration (rather than feeling compelled to comment on it)

o   As an appropriate expression between people who are intimate (to put it into words only demonstrates the difference between us)

·        Basso’s Hypothesis: Keith Basso, an anthropologist, did a well-known study among the Native Americans of the Southwest (Apache, I believe!). He found that silence might be used among newlyweds, among workers just starting on a project together, or when someone raised their voice (like in a bar). He concluded that silence is a cultural response for dealing with uncertainty. Each of the situations is uncertain, because men and women are raised separately (with marriages arranged); and if someone raises their voice, the person must be crazy, so silence is a safe approach!

·        Braithwaite revised Basso’s hypothesis by looking (in the library!) at 18 different cultures, and concluded that cultures often silence when there are unequal power relations and the communicators are aware of them, such as an upper-status person using silence to “put down” a lower status person, or the lower status person using silence to respect the upper-status person.


Chronemic:  Aspects of time (like “chronological). Authors have proposed different ways of understanding how people use and makes sense of time. An interesting issue of National Geographic once looked at time around the world—What is a “long” time? Is time cyclical? Is it saved, stored, spent? Supposedly, a visiting British dignitary was in Texas for its 150th anniversary. He remarked that it was interesting to come from Britain, where 150 miles is a long way, to Texas, where 150 years is a long time! Here are some dimensions, some from our prior notes:

·        Past, Presents, Future focus (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck)

·        Informal, Formal, Scientific (and how long is "a while"?). Formal time refers to exact clock time—so if I say, “Meet met at 6:00 tonight,” you might show up very close to 6:00, treating this as a formal time. Informal time refers to time dimensions (such as “later,” “after while,” “in a bit,” “Tuesday afternoon”) that can be understood very informally. The main tension that might occur here is when someone from one culture intends “6:00” to be formal, and the other person treats it as informal and shows up “some time in the early evening”

·        Monochronic and  Polychronic time—concepts by E.T. Hall (with an entire chapter in the S&P reader on the topic!). Monochronic time is linear, one-thing-at-a-time time. Polychronic is more fluid, several-things-at-a-time time. In M-time, time is spent, saved, and segmented. If you have an office visit with me, I contract these 30 minutes for us, and others wait outside. In P-time, I might manage different visits (or projects, or house-cleaning chores) at the same time. Both dimensions exist in all cultures and may be contextual, but cultures seem to have preferences. Some of us are P-time people, and some M-time people. And we probably frustrate each other! (P-time people have trouble reaching task completion; M-time people are often too linear and segmented; for example, they may not be able to have “fun” on the job, because that is not “fun” time).

·        Ethnic time differences?: Even among groups in the U.S. there may be different time orientations. Some speak of a thing called “Colored People’s Time,” an approach to time by some African Americans that treats time as more fluid. As Johnson (2000) states, many African Americans live “in time,” focusing on the relationship of the present moment, while many Whites strive to be “on time,” following a more formal, scheduled (and, yes, monochromic) time orientation. A difficulty sometimes arises in conflict situations. The African American feels that the most important thing is the relationship and the resolution of the conflict. The “time” to end the conflict is when mutual understanding has been reached. But the White might be willing to stop the conflict to be “on time” for some other appointment, letting the clock, and not the relationship or the resolution of the conflict, dictate the timing of the event.

Thought Box: Possible Questions:


II. Theories Explaining NVC in Intercultural Communication

For years, much of the research in nonverbal intercultural communication was atheoretical—meaning not guided by theory [negating “a” prefix + “thereotical]. Much of the early work was merely lists and frameworks of behavior. However, in recent years, researchers have made different attempts at theorizing NVC from an intercultural perspective.

·        E. T. Hall: One of the scholars who has probably written the most in this area is the anthropologist, E. T. Hall (one of the people who began the intercultural communication discipline). Hall wrote several books that focused on nonverbal and intercultural communication as the silent language and the hidden dimension. He did groundbreaking work on proxemics, haptics, and chronomics, coming up with things like:

o   Monochronic and polychromic time (M-time and P-time) dimensions

o   High and low context cultures

o   Proxemics and 4 space zones

o   Contact culture idea [see above]

Really, many of his ideas come closer to a theorization, in terms of providing detailed frameworks of understanding of nonverbal communication. Here is a link summarizing E.T. Hall’s research in proxemics:

·        Predicting NV dimensions with Cultural Dimensions: The most common such attempt is to predict them using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. For example, Anderson (2003) uses Hofstede’s axes as a way to frame the various nonverbal behavior differences between cultures. For example, the bow in some Asian cultures and the Korean handshake with the left hand on one’s own forearm are behaviors that demonstrate status and are more likely to be seen in a culture with higher power distance.

David Matsumoto, a cross-cultural psychologist, based on Hofstede, developed a theory of display rules that would predict how cultures might use display rules.

Matsumoto’s Theory of display rules: blends Hofstede’s dimensions of Ind/Coll and Power Distance to make predictions about Facial Display of Emotions. For example:

o   Individualists will have more facial displays that demonstrate personal feelings or will incorporate rules to protect personal interests. Collectivists will avoid facial displays that disrupt group harmony

o   Collectivists will have a greater difference b/t in- and outgroup facial displays of emotion than individualists

o   Hi PD cultures will favor facial displays that respect or honor status difference (e.g., not showing anger or extreme joy to a supervisor). Low PD will have less such displays.

o   Hi PD cultures will have a greater difference in facial display of emotion between those of equal status and those of different statuses; people in low PD cultures will more likely use the same displays regardless of the status of the other individual.

(Andersen, 2012 talks about the relationship between Hofstede’s dimensions and various aspects of NVC]

·        (Nonverbal) Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT)

Nutshell: The main point of this theory is that each person has expectations for behavior in different situations. The theory tries to predict what will happen when violations occur.


·        People develop assumptions about the appropriate and expected behavior of others

·        When people violate what we anticipate, it draws our attention away from the message (words, symbols) to the person and to our relationship with the person.

·        A violation can be either positive or negative (they are not always negative, as formerly thought!). This is a notion that many students just don’t seem to get on the exams…


This theory, framed originally by Judee Burgoon, is a response to different perspectives:

·        Space Invaders: Different theorists, for different reasons, suggested that invasions of personal space had negative outcomes on communication:

o   Equilibrium theory: When someone gets too close, we seek to balance out the space, either by moving further away, glancing away, talking about superficial topics, etc. (like on elevators—an “intimate” space that we seek to balance!”)

o   Arousal theory: When someone stands too close, it leads to arousal…No, not that kind of arousal (shame on you!), but an enhanced consideration of the communicator. You might way that “arousal” occurs when one’s thoughts become tuned into to the process of communication instead of the message. It is a sort of cognitive arousal. Arousal theory said that, since arousal takes cognitive attention, and we are “cognitive misers” (want to use as little of our minds as possible), we don’t like arousal, so invasions are negative.

·        Distance Zones: E. T. Hall proposed that there were different spatial zones of comfort, depending on the (situation, relationship, topic). These are:

o   Intimate distance: from 0 to 18 inches. For sexual and other intimate contact.

o   Personal distance: from 18 inches to 4 feet. Typically for interactions with family and close friends.

o   Social distance: from 4 to 12 feet. Typically for casual and social settings.

o   Public distance: from 12 feet and beyond. Typically for formal situations.

·        Summary: With this in mind, Burgoon suggested that:

o   Prior theories do not work, because in many instances, if someone stands too close, we do not move away. We may actually enjoy it (depending on the person and whether she or he is attractive, has high status, or has used deodorant today). And it may have positive consequences on interaction.

o   People can violate expectations in the distance zones by using a zone that is not appropriate for the topic. The most typical example is someone who stands too close, like the “close talker” on Friends, when such closeness is not warranted. But someone can also violate by being too far away when you expect more spatial intimacy.

·        Extending the theory: Over time, Burgoon has made some very important changes to the theory, for our purposes!

o   She has extended EVT (originally nonverbal expectancy violation theory, now simply expectations violation theory) to cover all aspects of NV communication (tone of voice, touch, etc.), as well as verbal communication (directness of communication, joke topics, etc.)

o   She has extended EVT to consider cultural differences in communication.  This is a very close move from the first extension, as so much of the difficulty in intercultural interaction results from violation of cultural expectations. A couple of points:

§  If we extend the theory fully into ICC, we must realize that not all expectations will be negative! For example, in many cultures, if you try to speak the language, you violate the culture’s expectations of an American, and this can lead to a positive outcome!

§  The theory is not just about NVC. Some have noted how it is not whether our expectations are violated when we go abroad that lead to poor cultural adjustment, but the direction in which they are violated. If we have negative expectations, but we find positive aspects of the trip, this is good! If we have positive expectations only, but face the reality of negative experiences, this can be bad.

A Process/Model of how EVT works:

EVT suggests that communication between people, when a violation occurs, goes through a sort of a process, or a model. The model looks something like this (Baldwin’s own conceptualization):


o   Expectancies: Our anticipated behaviors of the other person. These are based on (a) what our culture dictates should be done; (b) what we desire to happen; and (c) what we expect this person to do based on our personal knowledge of her or him.

  • Violation (for example, of personal space): The other person does not do what is personally or culturally anticipated, for example, stands too close, interrupts you, offers a kind but unexpected word
  • Arousal [if it is noticed, that is—may lead to arousal. This is a sense of alertness about the behavior. As Burgoon calls it, it is when the violation draws the attention away from the content of the verbal message. Thus, someone might stand closer than you expect, but you don’t notice it. In this case, the rest of the theory does not “kick in.”]
  • Interpretation: If the violation leads to arousal, you must then interpret it (that is, decide if you like it or not). Very specifically, we could say that interpretation and evaluation are separate. The interpretation is the attribution or meaning you give to the behavior and is a “thought” about the behavior.
  • Evaluation: This would be your “feeling” about the behavior. This is not straightforward, because you are really evaluating two different things.

(1) Communicator Reward Valence (“reward/punishment potential” of the other person. Is he attractive? Does she have high status? Is his communication style rewarding, etc.)

(2) Behavior/Violation Valence (Do you like the behavior itself?)

--Some behaviors are unambiguous (a poke in the eye with a sharp stick is usually seen as negative). For example, Burgoon used to think there is a Threshold of Threat—a personal distance where would evaluate the other person negatively no matter how positive the communicator reward valence. Interestingly, research has not supported the existence of this threshold, so she took it out of the theory)

  • Response: This is your behavioral response to the violation.


Ex: You are expecting a quiet, romantic evening. Your partner comes home and sits at the opposite end of the couch in a huff. Her/his answers to you are clipped, even though the words are correct. This draws the violation to your attention (arousal). You consider both the communicator (you like the person a lot) and the behavior (you don’t care for the behavior). Depending on the weight of your like for the person and dislike for the behavior, you either get defensive, maybe moving further away (sitting on the floor next to the couch is unlikely, but you might leave the room), or move closer to find out what’s wrong.


How the theory works: [Have a general understanding of these principles!]

  • We can predict the outcomes of violations by knowing CRV and behavioral valence (how much we like the person and the behavior). If we dislike both, we know the evaluation will be negative! If we like both (an attractive person who brushes up against us in the elevator), we may reciprocate the behavior (brush, brush, and so on).
  • Some behaviors—or communicators—are so negative that they outweigh a positive evaluation on the other dimension (such as a bouquet of flowers from a hated boss, a Starbucks gift card from the student that didn’t get a good grade on Quiz one..hint, hint) and sways us to a specific evaluation.
  • Some behaviors are quite clear in their positive or negative valence (a stick in the eye with a sharp stick, for most people, would be a negative behavior, for example). But ambiguous behaviors are especially problematic. A touch, a gaze, standing closer than one would expect, and so on are not clear in their meanings! It is in these cases that the positive or negative aspect of the communicator (CRV) becomes most important!
  • Positive communicators (those who are attractive, yes, but also those who use positive, affirming, or warm, open communication) are given more leeway in making cultural violations. In fact, they are seen as “charming” or endearing. A negatively valenced person will not be given leeway. The same violation by two different people might be received differently! 


Thought Box: Apply basic (“atheoretical”) ideas of NV communication to your culture or to understand a culture or co-culture you have visited (for example, do you believe there are ethnic or regional differences in some dimensions in the U.S.?).



Use Burgoon’s Expectancy Violation model. Describe som cultural or intercurtlural  violation you have experienced (as the one who violated others’ expectations, or as the one whose expectations were violated). BTW, make sure it’s cultural and not just some disagreement you had with a roommate (this is intercultural communication class, after all).

  • Does the violation bring “arousal”?
  • How does the person perceiving the violation evaluate the action? The communicator?
  • What is the persons’ response?
  • What factors might lead to a positive or negative response to a violation?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the theory?


·        Semiotics:

Semiotics is a broad, interdisciplinary field that looks at “signs” (which we will explain below); it is based on the Greek word for “sign.” It has been used very widely to analyze media (we will deal with it again there—with just a little more detail). There are entire journals dedicated to it (e.g., Semiotica), and classes taught in it. Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz (1993) used semiotics as a major lens to understand culture in general.


It has been applied widely to nonverbal and verbal behaviors of every kind; however, because it is not social scientific in focus, but interpretive (and often critical), our nonverbal courses and seminars have often ignored it as a theoretical lens to understand nonverbal behavior.


There are many theorists who each treat semiotics differently. But for our purposes, we will keep it simple, using the approach of Roland Barthes (1981) who presents three very basic principles of semiology:

1)      The sign is a combination of a signifier + a signified. The signifier is a sound or image that represents the “signified,” the thought or idea represented.

2)      Messages include and draw from sign systems. Often, we encode a given idea with multiple signifiers. If I want to “represent” professionalism on a job interview, I will have a neatly ironed shirt, a “power” tie (which represents both professionalism and dominance), a suit (which will represent professionalism, but also a particular social class and a style consciousness. Thus, my used 1980s polyester suit from Goodwill may not give the image I desire!). But these only work because there are already codes in societal understanding that others draw upon—stock sets of meanings and images—to interpret my clothing ensemble.

3)      Sign systems work to reinforce (and challenge) ideology. Much punk rock fashion in Britain and other places turned fashion codes upside down to resist dominant ideologies (Why did the chicken cross the road? It was stapled to a punk rocker). People use fashion, body decorations (piercings, tattoos, plastic surgery, hair style, work out and diet regimens) to codify (signify) racial, gender, national, political, religious, and other identities. If we are simply dressing in the dominant mode, we are passing on a particular code, instead of resisting it.

Thought Box: How do the men and women in these images use a variety of nonverbal behaviors (gesture, body dress/adornment, paralinguistics (tone of voice, etc.) or other patterns to “encode” masculinity and femininity? To borrow from our readings on gender, are these dominant or marginalized views of masculinity and femininity? (That is, do the sign systems in these instances reinforce status quo ideology about what men and women should be like, or do they challenge those ideologies?)



·          Barthes, R. (1981). Elements of semiology (Trans. A. Lavers & C. Smith). New York: Hill and Wang.

·          Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1993). Semiotics and communication: Signs, codes, cultures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

·          Matsumoto, D. (1991). Cultural influences on facial expressions of emotion. Southern Communication Journal, 56, 128-??.

·          Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes. New York: Norton.

General Intro to NVC

· First of two pages giving general orientation to NV behavior, with lists of types of behavior for each channel (gesture, posture, etc.)

· A cool powerpoint by Yang Xiaoquing that introduces NV and then gives details on paralinguistics (with some nice pix and even audio clip examples of paralinguistic sounds).

· NVC meets MUDs (Multiple User Domains)—An academic essay on how Internet users negotiate and use “nonverbal” communication. Kewl! ;)

NVC and Culture

· A Webboard for discussion of specific NV behaviors (including across cultures) A human resources article, with a link to a quiz (with images) of your NV expertise (all, seemingly, to promote the very popular NV videos by Dane Archer).

· Take a look at Chinese NV gestures, traditional & contemporary!

· Short Website—NV meanings for the traveler

· Latin American verbal & NV differences

Just for Fun…

·          An interesting cite on variations of a theme (same gesture across many cultures). Fun! But be careful!

·         How close do you stand? A game (for men—sorry—not meaning to be sexist): Play the urinal game!