Cross-Cultural Communications: The Difference in Nonverbal Behaviors between Spaniards and Americans


Communication entails non-verbal cues in addition to exchange of words (Verbal). The main purpose of communication is to pass information from one person to another. However, people experience different barriers such as language and poor understanding of gestures. In this paper, the communication across different cultures will be studied. The cultures of interests are Spaniards and Americans. The common and different behavior encountered within the two cultures during communications will be studied through data collection.

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The data will be summarized and explained in the findings in order to draw an conclusion. From the research, both cultures show non-verbal communication from body languages such as gestures to facial expressions. Each culture has different communication gestures, which makes it difficult for the two cultures to have effective non-verbal communication. The facts explains the reasons for barrier during across diversity.


Communication is not just the exchange of words between two or more people. It includes other non-verbal cues such as eye contact, hand gestures, facial expressions, posture and even silence. All these forms of communication send massage about one’s emotion, status, attitude and relationships. People encounter the challenge of communication barriers in a foreign country when they meet people who do not speak their language (Buchner, 2013).

In such a scenario, the person would require an interpreter who understands their language to translate to their words to the other person in order to communicate effectively. On the other, the person in the foreign land would meet an individual who speaks their language and encounter no problems. However, verbal communication would not completely tell their full story, which then would be complemented by non-verbal behaviors. In as much as the native can speak a foreign language, they have a difference in non-verbal cues because of the difference in their cultural backgrounds (Buchner, 2013).

Body languages among other non-verbal communication techniques vary as widely as verbal language across the world in different cultures. For instance, if an American man smiles at a Spaniard woman who does not smile back, what would the American man interpret? Would she probably be bored, angry or lost in thought? In this regard, the American man would be wise to read her body language in order to understand her attitude, status and emotion. Non-verbal cues are important in all settings because they help the communicator to understand the recipient (Teal & Street, 2009). For instance, a supervisor at the work place would tell if their staff understands instructions through the cues they communicate to them. In the same way, a direct sales person would tell if a potential customer is interested in purchasing their products or not.

Culture influences verbal communication in profound ways and in the same way, non-verbal behaviors. The non-verbal language that children learn while growing up seems normal and natural to them until they grow up and begin to interact with other cultures. However, some facial expressions and reactions such as disgust or fear have a universal interpretation. On the other hand, other cues are learned over time and have no universal interpretation (Knapp et al., 2014). An individual may never gain knowledge of every sign in all cultures because the same diversity exists within their own culture. The intercultural difference in cues vary according to race, religion or generation, which then presents an individual with more challenges to learn the meaning of every sign across the globe (Martin & Nakayama, 2007). However, it is important that one learn some of the basic dissimilarities in signals to achieve greater sensitivity to avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings when interacting with others.

Non-Verbal Communications and their different meanings in diverse cultures

Body language and non-verbal behaviors are an essential part of communication and vary from one culture to another (Argyle, 2013). Arm and hand gestures, eye contact or the lack of it and touch are examples of some of the signs that vary considerably among cultures depending on their backgrounds. The following are examples of language cues and the illustration of their differences in meaning across cultures.

Gestures: Different backgrounds use different gestures to communicate, which have diverse meanings to other people. For example, the use of the hand or the finger to beckon at someone may be acceptable to some cultures but offensive to others. In the United States, the action is normal but in other cultures, it is considered rude. Other traditions such as the Asians use the entire hand when pointing at something, which clearly indicates a difference in communication across cultures.

Touch: The act of patting a child’s head indicates affection and friendly in the American culture, while in the Asian culture, the act is considered inappropriate because the head is deemed as a sacred part of the human body (Argyle, 2013). The left hand in the Middle East is often reserved for hygiene purposes and therefore should never be used to transfer object or touch another. The Muslims do not encourage touch between individuals from the opposite sex since it is inappropriate.

Gaze or eye contact: In the Western culture, gaze or eye contact is often interpreted as honesty and attentiveness. People from this background are often taught that they should look people in the eye during a conversation. In other cultures such as the Native American, Hispanic, Middle East, Middle Easter and Asian, gazing at someone’s eyes is considered rude or disrespectful and lack of gaze during a conversation does not imply that the individual is not attentive. In fact, a woman may avoid eye contact with a man as it is interpreted as sign of having sexual interest (Brody & Hall, 2008).

Personal Space: This refers to the distance that an individual is comfortable to keep between themselves and another person. If a person approaching another maintains a great personal space, they may be interpreted as shy, cold or unfriendly. On the other hand, if they maintained a small distance, they may seem intrusive, aggressive or rude. Different cultures maintain this distance differently across the globe (Brody & Hall, 2008). The Africans and Latin Americans emphasize on personal relationships that even in business dealings, business size distance may shrink to personal size. In American culture, the business size is often maintained because they do not heavily emphasize on personal relationships in the commercial realm.

Research question: What is the best way to understand cross-cultural communications to achieve greater sensitivity to diverse non-verbal behaviors and therefore avoid misunderstandings?


Data Collection

For this research study, two data collection methods will be used; primary and secondary techniques. Secondary data will be obtained from scholarly material such as books, journals, magazines and articles that have information about the topic under research. The sources will be obtained online or in the library. Primary data will be obtained through surveys, which will also include interviews with the people the researcher interacts with. The primary research will be conducted on both Spaniards and Americans that live in the United States.

The participants will be sought from public places where people from different cultures meet and interact such as in bars, spectator events, learning places and working places. The participants will be selected randomly and approached with a set of questions that will help the researcher to understand the difference in non-verbal behaviors between the two cultures and how they are interpreted.

One of the interviews will be conducted during a soccer event in one of the local colleges in America that has a significantly high number of students from Latin American origin. Both male and female students from both cultures will be asked questions concerning the various non-verbal communication cues that they use and their meaning in their culture. The difference will therefore be highlighted to understand disparities between the two non-verbal behaviors and how they may be misinterpreted when used across cultures.

The students will also be asked to share on experiences where a fellow from another background misunderstood a gesture that eventually resulted in conflict. The aim will be to understand the misconceptions that arise when people do not understand that diverse traditions use dissimilar body language to communicate messages. In addition, this will show the importance to understand some of the basic gestures across backgrounds to avoid misapprehension and therefore foster good relations.

A set of questions will be prepared prior to the interviews that will take fifteen to twenty minutes per student. In as much as the students will be randomly selected, the survey will only require fifty students, inclusive of both male and female students from the cultures in the study. The students will answer the same number of questions and answers will be compared for accurate results.

Data Analysis

The data collected in this research study will be descriptive as opposed to statistical. In this regard, qualitative data analysis technique will be employed. The way in which the process will be carried out will depend on the interview questions that were asked during the survey and the basis of relevant theories to the study. The process will typically start by familiarizing with the data collected during the survey and identifying themes and patterns that will help the researcher obtain the various relationships in the results. Lastly, the information will be visually presented through a write up.

During this qualitative analysis procedure, the researcher will immerse himself or she in identifying the mass of terms generated through the interview and the recorded observational cues gathered during the survey. The researcher will then develop themes, which will be related to various ideas or behavioral attributes of the respondent such as cultural background and gender, in this case, either American or Spaniard. Qualitative data analysis will proceed as follows.

Familiarization: The notes that were taken down during the interview will be read and re-read and summaries will be made. This will enable the researcher to familiarize with the data from all the respondents from the survey.

Coding: After the researcher has familiarized himself or herself with the material, they will do some first round coding. For instance, the area of interest in the study is to identify the different non-verbal behaviors between the Americans and the Spaniards. In this regard, the researcher will look out for how the respondents present certain concepts of the topic, their causes and the effects they have in their interaction. The researcher will identify similar concepts that arise from the respondents and give them a code.

For instance, in one of the summary of the responds where they talk about the misconceptions they encounter due to the disparities in cross cultural signs, the researcher will highlight all the areas that refer to this particular issue and give them a similar code.

Themes: The coding process will have enabled the researcher to identify emergent concepts or themes around the area of interest. The themes will then be used to recode the coded ideas, which will then help to develop defined categories. The data collected during the interview will be solely used in generating the emergent themes around the research question.

Write up presentation: This stage entails summarizing all the information gathered from the analyzed responses from the interview transcripts that by this time are identified as emergent themes or concepts. For instance, the researcher will write a descriptive analysis of how the respondents conceptualize “cross-cultural non-verbal communication” and may later incorporate theories that are relevant to the ideas presented by the respondents. Lastly, the researcher will be able to develop the relationship between different concepts or themes once a conclusive write-up has been done.


Foreign languages feel strange between people of different backgrounds. In the same way, non-verbal signals feel strange and have different meaning among cultures. Some of them may be innocent and normal while among other people, they may be deemed rude and disrespectful (Ting-Toomey, 2009). People from American and Spanish origin have different non-verbal behaviors that if an individual from either background takes their time to understand them may avoid misconceptions and have successful communication with the other person. Below are some of the differences.

In the Western culture, tossing an object to someone is not a big deal and the action is not considered rude. On the other hand, people from Latin America consider the action impolite and therefore they encourage one to walk over to the other person and hand over the object to them. In the same way that such an action implies different meanings between the two cultures, so does other non-verbal cue in day-to-day interactions vary.

Latin Americans often greet people more personally than they often greet people from the western culture (Yammiyavar, Clemmensen & Kumar, 2008). Unlike in the western culture, men, even give hugs and greet women while touching cheeks and make kissing noises. Women also greet their fellow women in the similar way and this kind of greeting is not interpreted as flirtatious or romantic at all.

Hand gestures among Spaniards are dissimilar to those in the United States. For instance, thumbs-up to an individual have dissimilar meanings between the two cultures (Argyle, 2013). The gesture for “come here” are different in that, in America, the index finger is used with the hand palm up, which is interpreted as solicitation or flirtatious among Latin Americans (Johnson 2007). The Spaniards motion to someone in a different way as they extend the four fingers with the hand palm down.


From the study, different cultures develop certain non-verbal communication that helps to pass information from one person to another. Some include gestures, facial expression, and body movements. The study was interested with two cultures, Spaniards and Americans. It was evident that both groups have nonverbal communication but with variations. For instance, it is evident that among the Spaniards, the gesture to alert someone of a pickpocket when standing along an aisle or traveling is widely used.

In such a situation, mothers or grandmothers often signal someone with unique hand gestures that may be interpreted differently among the Americans such one may think that the woman has sexual intentions or is being flirtatious in some way. In such a scenario, an American would either be offended or accept “advances” from the Latin American stranger because of misinterpretation of the gesture.


Argyle, M. (2013). Bodily communication. London, Routledge.
Bochner, S. (2013). Cultures in contact: Studies in cross-cultural interaction. Elsevier.
Brody, R., & Hall, A. (2008). Gender and emotion in context. Handbook of emotions, 3, 395-408.
Johnson, R. (2007). Race and police reliance on suspicious non-verbal cues. Policing an International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 30(2), 277-290.
Knapp et al., (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Martin, N & Nakayama, K. (2007). Intercultural communication in contexts.
Teal, R & Street, L. (2009). Critical elements of culturally competent communication in the medical encounter: a review and model. Social science & medicine, 68(3), 533-543.
Ting-Toomey, S. (2009). Communicating across cultures. New York: Guilford Press.
Yammiyavar, P., Clemmensen, T., & Kumar, J. (2008). Influence of cultural background on non-verbal communication in a usability-testing situation. International Journal of Design, 2(2), 31-40.

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