On communication and how it’s effected by culture

My first blog is going to be about how body language & facial expressions are a product of culture and upbringing. A person’s face is a natural indicator of emotion and it can be used to express emotion and comprehension without necessarily having to use words. We would all agree that a quick nod of the head would translate into agreement, right? Well maybe not.

Now what’s fascinating about your body language is that you wouldn’t realize the subtleties about the way you communicate until you’ve picked up a book about effective communication and the sort. To most, body language, facial expressions and hand gestures come naturally.

During the last 5 years, I was exposed to a large mix of people from various parts of the world and I realize now there were many times when I didn’t quite understand what my friends were saying. There was my Iranian friend who would say ‘no’ using her face quite similar to the way an English speaking person would move their heads to say ‘yeap’. Much of South Asia in fact carries out a particular sway of the head when understanding needs to be communicated during a conversation.

I believe that facial expressions, along with language & customs, are an inheritance of a cultural package from parent to child. That it is first learned from the immediate caretakers, mostly parents in this case and perhaps siblings and that as a child learns to communicate using words, she also starts imitating hand gestures and the body language that the adults use.

My assumption was that a person’s body language would evolve, slowly adapting to not only the parent’s way of communication but to the siblings’, teachers’ and that of the kids at school. Boy was I in for a surprise when one day I realized that my body language was not changing so much depending on the people around me but was affected by the language I was speaking too.

Let me tell you how it happened. A year ago, I was told by G that my mom swayed her head side to side when she wanted to agree to a suggestion; had she not spoken too, G would have thought that she was disagreeing. I knew exactly what he was talking about, because hey, most Sri Lankans I know communicated the very same way and of course. I was so confident that I didn’t exhibit the same Lankan behavior that I even joked about it with him.

So, I met mom again 6 months later, and something strange happened while I was talking to her. I realized that I too was communicating like her – I became very aware that I was swaying MY head in agreement this time around. I found it fascinating that I could communicate using completely different body movements when speaking in a different language.

I realize now that I communicate in Sinhalese in a very controlled yet pleasant manner. The language and attitude I take borders submissiveness when I speak with my parents or older relatives because respect is demanded of the young. In English however, I can easily be casual and communicate pretty much like any young woman on TV would – oh yea!

So the next time you’re talking to your neighbor or an acquaintance from a foreign land, or even just watching a foreign movie, look for those differences in communication and perhaps you could absorb a bit of their culture.


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