3 Critical Components of Nonverbal Communication


By being observant of how other individuals behave, you may get insight on how they view these 3 components of nonverbal communication.

In a previous article, I outlined the basics of nonverbal communication, including body language. In this article, I want to touch upon its critical components.

These components are 1) perfecting the handshake, 2) knowing the right amount of personal space, and 3) offering the appropriate amount of eye contact. Having a personal passion for travel and coming from a multicultural city, I want to provide insight on how the rest of the world (and patients from those areas) approach the same 3 techniques and how they differ from our customary norms.

1. Handshake

Here’s the proper way to give a handshake in America:

  • Extend the right hand, thumb up and palm flat
  • Grasp the other individual’s hand using a firm grip
  • Pump clasped hands 2 or 3 times in a vertical motion
  • Release grip

Practice extending great handshakes with family members and friends to determine what’s comfortable for you. Trying it out on a friend is much easier than starting out with your patients and professional colleagues.

Avoid giving a handshake that’s too strong because it will crush the other individual’s hand and won’t be appreciated, although giving a “limp noodle” handshake isn’t favorable, either. Aim for a nice middle ground that conveys confidence and respect, yet spares the other individual’s hand from pain.

Here are some handshaking insights from around the world:

  • In Western culture, handshakes should be firm and palm to palm. Weak handshakes are considered limp and cold.
  • In European countries, such as France and Italy, the norm is to shake hands every time you meet someone.
  • In some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, a grip that’s too firm is considered rude.
  • In some Asian cultures, “gentler” handshakes preferred, and the custom is to hold on for an extended time after the initial shake.
  • Some religions, such as Orthodox Judaism and Islam, have guidelines on physical touch, so handshaking may not be welcomed by the recipient.

2. Personal Space

Personal space is the distance you keep between yourself and the other individual. It varies widely among different cultures in the following ways:

  • In the United States, many prefer to keep anywhere from 1 to 3 yards of space between individuals depending on familiarity. This is also the general norm in Western countries, such as England, Norway, and Germany.
  • In the Middle East, the personal space requirements are more lax. Even new acquaintances may stand close to one another.
  • Asian cultures are typically accustomed to less personal space than Westerners.

It’s important to understand the personal space requirements of different cultures so you’re not perceived as rude (by standing too far away) or pushy (by standing too close).

3. Eye Contact

Making good eye contact is one of the social skills a lot of young professionals seem to struggle with. However, it can increase the quality of all of your face-to-face interactions, especially with your patients and colleagues.

  • In Western cultures, eye contact is appropriate most of the time and shows interest and engagement with your conversation. Although a lack of eye contact can be seen negatively, too much eye contact can come off as intimidating, or just plain scary.
  • In Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact is less common and considered less appropriate. There are strict gender rules, whereby women shouldn’t make too much eye contact with men, as it could be misconstrued as romantic interest.
  • In Asian cultures, eye contact isn’t considered essential to social interaction; rather, it’s often considered inappropriate. In authoritarian cultures, it’s believed that subordinates shouldn’t make steady eye contact with their superiors. So, patients (in reverence to you, a professional) may be discouraged from making eye contact with you, as it can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect on their part.
  • Many African and Latin American cultures may view intense eye contact as aggressive, confrontational, and disrespectful.

Other cultures may view our Western norms as inappropriate and even disrespectful. Fortunately, the United States is home to many nationalities, and as a population, we may be more inclined to the customs and norms of one another.

Cross-cultural awareness is an essential skill when working with the public or other professionals from all different backgrounds. But, as a general rule, I’ve stuck with a firm handshake, respectful distance to provide ample personal space, and a good amount of eye contact. By being observant of how other individuals behave, you may get insight on how they view these 3 components of nonverbal communication.

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