Universals in Nonverbal Communication

The statement that there are some universals in nonverbal communication is preposterous, right? My entire blog, Cultural Connections, is built on the fact that the world is a diverse place and intercultural communication varies by culture. This is true, there are so many factors that dictate how people around the world communicate verbally and nonverbally. Cultural universals might be a bit of a stretch, so even though categorized as universals, I like to think of them more as general similarities.

Charles Darwin wrote a book called The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, which outlines six basic emotional expressions shared around the globe. Humans, no matter what culture, showed the same general expression for happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger. We tend to think that everything varies by culture, so maybe something to express disgust would be what someone in another culture expresses as happiness. Think about this in loose terms, it does make sense. Most people assume that a smile means someone is happy, and a furrowed brow means anger.

Michael Argyle found five different nonverbal communicators to be universal. First, all cultures use the same body parts for nonverbal communication. Second, nonverbal communication is used to convey the same information such as emotions or norms. Third, motives for using nonverbal communication is similar across cultures. Fourth, nonverbal communication is used in art and rituals accompanied with verbal communication. Fifth, nonverbal communication is used to coordinate contexts within relationships. Now, these again don’t seem so much as universals, but rather similarities. These are very broad situations in which it is understandable that cultures use nonverbal communication. His research was not very specific on the actual nonverbals, only the situations they are used.

There are many criticisms regarding the idea of cultural universals in nonverbal communication. A recent article by the Huffington Post explains a study that challenges the idea that facial expressions are universal, as Darwin had claimed. I hold true to believing that there are not quite cultural universals out there, but rather strong similarities for all humans nonverbal communication. Do you agree? Or do you think there are actual universals?


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