Nonverbal Behavior in Cross-cultural Perspective: A Study with Japanese College Students

Enid Mok


In order to understand learners' knowledge of L2 nonverbal communication, this study investigates the results of a recognition task administered to 154 Japanese college students.  The results suggest that Japanese EFL learners have little knowledge of the body language of native speakers.  Significant differences appeared according to gender, proficiency level and overseas experience.  The findings provide valuable insights into L2 teaching





1.  Introduction

Previous research shows that nonverbal communication is closely linked to culture and that code switching in a language usually accompanies code switching in nonverbal behavior and vice versa.  For example, a classroom study of bilingual children found that when the children switched from one language to another, their body language changed (von Raffler-Engel, 1976).  Such "gestural bilingualism" is also reported in Efron (1972), and Wolfgang (1979), suggesting that it is important to speak a language with appropriate body motions.


2.  The Present Study

2.1 Purpose

This study was an attempt to investigate how familiar Japanese EFL learners are with native speakers' "kinesics," a term invented by Birdwhistell (1970) to refer to gestures and other body movements, including facial expressions, eye movements and postures.  The aim was to find out how much learners know about L2 kinesics, in what ways they misinterpret the body language of native speakers. This also includes whether upper-level learners understand more body language than lower-level learners, whether there is a gender or age difference in learners' knowledge of L2 kinesics, and whether a learner?fs knowledge of L2 kinesics increases with length of study. Another issue studied was whether English majors or learners who have overseas experience understand more body language than non-English majors and those who have never been abroad.  Five hypotheses were made in relation to these issues:

Hypothesis 1:  There would be a relationship between L2 proficiency and comprehension ability of L2 kinesics.

Hypothesis 2:        There would be no difference between male and female learners in their comprehension of L2 kinesics.

Hypothesis 3:        Knowledge of L2 kinesics would increase with age and length of L2 study.

Hypothesis 4:        L2 majors would be more familiar with L2 kinesics than other majors.

Hypothesis 5:        Direct contact with a foreign culture would have a positive effect on familiarity with L2 kinesics. 


2.2  Methodology

This study took the form of a recognition task using visual stimuli.  Thirty pictures (or "emblems"[1]) displaying a variety of gestures and body movements taken from Koustaff (1997)[2] were presented to 154 Japanese college students on an OHP (See Appendix).

All the respondents, aged 18-23, were enrolled in EFL classes at the Hokkaido University of Education at Hakodate.  They were each given an answer sheet to write their understanding of the meaning(s) of each emblem in Japan and America, and to provide personal information such as age, gender, etc. 


2.3 Quantitative and Qualitative Analyses

Quantitative analysis involved the use of t-tests and ANOVA in StatView J-4.5.  Mean scores were compared by various groupings: proficiency level, gender, age, length of L2 study, major, and overseas experience.  The respondents were divided into three proficiency levels according to their grades and performance in EFL classes, while the cut-off points for age and length of study were decided based on the distribution of the respondents' age and the number of years they had studied English.  The significance level established for this study was 0.01.  Qualitative analysis focused on learners' familiarity with individual emblems and areas of false decoding.



3.        Results and Discussion


Accuracy scores ranged from 0 to 20 points, with an average of 10.8, while the maximum possible score was 30.  Mean scores by category are given in Tables 1-6.  The number of learners in each group is given in the "n" column.  'M" stands for mean score.  "SD" indicates standard deviation.  "SE" means standard error of differences.  The probability level is shown as either "p>0.01" (i.e., statistically insignificant) or "p<0.01" (i.e., statistically significant).   

Table 1 shows upper-level learners received an average of 12.93 points, intermediate learners 12.27, and lower-level learners 9.85.  The differences were statistically significant, suggesting that there is a relationship between L2 proficiency and the comprehension ability of L2 kinesics.  Hypothesis 1 was supported.


Table 1

Mean Scores by Proficiency Level

Proficiency Level






















Table 2 demonstrates a significant gender difference in accuracy scores.  Women scored an average of 11.54 points, whereas men scored only 9.99.  These results did not support Hypothesis 2, showing instead that female learners have a better comprehension of L2 kinesics than male learners.


Table 2

Mean Scores by Gender


















The results with respect to age and length of L2 study are given in Tables 3 and 4.  No significant difference was found between learners under the age of 20 and those who were 20 or older, nor between learners who had studied English eight years or more and those who had studied for a shorter period of time.  Hypothesis 3 was not supported.  The influences of age and length of study on L2 kinesics could not be confirmed.


Table 3

Mean Scores by Age

Age (range)





Under 20 (18-19)





20 or older (20-23)







Table 4

Mean Scores by Length of L2 Study

Length of L2 Study





Less than 8 years





8 years or more







Table 5 shows that English majors, on average, scored three points higher than non-English majors.  The difference is significant, supporting Hypothesis 4, i.e., learners majoring in L2 are more familiar with L2 kinesics than other majors.


Table 5

Mean Scores by Major


















Table 6 indicates a significant difference in accuracy between learners who had traveled, studied, or stayed with a host family in a foreign country and those who had no such experiences.  The former obtained an average of 12.81 points, whereas the latter only 10.56.  The results strongly suggest that direct contact with foreign culture has a positive effect on familiarity with the body language of that culture.  Hypothesis 5 was supported.


Table 6

Mean Scores by Foreign Experience

Foreign Experience

















The statistics reported above are based on correct decoding and reflect only one aspect of the respondents?f comprehension of the subject matter.  Table 7 further clarifies the learners' differing levels of familiarity with individual emblems.


Table 7

Level of Familiarity by Item

Rank Order

Accuracy rate (%)

Emblem #




















Accuracy rates for individual emblems ranged from 0 to 81.8%, with an average of 32.9%, suggesting that some emblems are more difficult for Japanese learners than others.  Seventy percent of the emblems received an accuracy rate of less than 50%.  Two emblems (#5, #19) were totally unknown to the respondents, four (#8, #14, #15, #28) were recognized by only three or fewer learners, and none were decoded correctly by all of the respondents.

Unfamiliar emblems tended to be misinterpreted in a greater variety of ways than familiar ones.  A line can be drawn roughly between those with an accuracy rate of 30% or greater and those under this level.  While the former generated an average of 5.8 misinterpretations, the latter generated 16.6.  Emblem #15 ranked at the top with 31 misinterpretations, followed by #7(27), #21(24) and #19(20).  The emblems that were totally unknown to the learners, namely #5 and #19, did not generate the most misinterpretations.

A total of 335 instances of false decoding were tabulated.  Among them, many were idiosyncratic to only a few respondents.  Take emblem #13 ("bad rating"), for example; one respondent misinterpreted it as "go back."

Some of the incorrect responses were exact opposites of the intended meanings.  Examples are "you" for emblem #3 ("me"); "I'm full," "I'm not hungry," "I ate too much," and "I can't eat any more" for #6 ("I'm hungry"); "Go!" for #18 ("Stop!"); and "Now I remember" for #25 ("I've forgotten").

A number of responses represent the major directions of misinterpretation.  For instance, emblem #1 was frequently misinterpreted as an expression of surprise, #2 as a signal for heat, #6 as an indication of having a stomachache, #8 as a religious expression, #9 as a sign of tiredness, #11 as a request for a tip, #13 as a curse, #15 as a compliment, #17 as an invitation for a handshake, #18 as a request for waiting, #19 as an expression of satisfaction, #23 as a way to tell someone to sit down, #24 as an indication of stupidity, #25 as an expression of regret, disappointment, or self-blame, #28 as a need for time to think, and #29 as a gesture of one carrying nothing.

Interestingly, emblem #12, which means "perfect," "OK," or "good," was commonly misinterpreted as a signal for "money."  This suggests direct transfer from L1 culture for the same gesture is used to refer to "money" in Japan.  Other examples of this kind are misinterpretations of #14 as a way to address the listener, and #22 as a signal meaning "safe."  Misinterpretations like these open a new area for future research.  It would be interesting to find out if learners also exhibit the same kind of transfer in their nonverbal behavior in L2 communication.


Concluding Remarks


This study suffered from several limitations that need to be improved in future research.  Specifically, future researchers should adopt multiple methods of data elicitation, include a larger sample involving learners in various age groups at a wider variety of levels, and address issues such as how and to what extent a learner?fs knowledge of L2 nonverbal behavior is reflected in actual usage and performance.

Despite its limitations, this study demonstrates not only a low level of understanding of L2 nonverbal communication among Japanese EFL learners, but also a high degree of culture-dependency of the subject matter, and the complexity of cross-cultural face-to-face interactions.

Although female and upper-level learners showed better comprehension of L2 kinesics than male and lower-level learners, the reasons cannot be pinpointed easily.  The finding that neither age nor length of L2 study had an effect on knowledge of L2 kinesics might be attributed to a lack of attention to the topic in program development and syllabus design.  Even though contact with foreign cultures might have no direct influence on knowledge of L2 kinesics, the experience itself certainly arouses curiosity and enhances sensitivity to cross-cultural differences.  That is probably why we found that learners who had overseas experience obtained a much better score than those who did not.  The fact that English majors did better than non-English majors also hints at the importance of exposure to L2 culture.

Qualitative analysis identifies the specific areas of difficulty for Japanese learners and shows that false decoding is a common phenomenon.   Specifically, the wide variety of misinterpretations provided by the respondents implies that false decoding can pose serious problems to communication. 

Evidently, successful L2 learning involves not only a high level of L2 proficiency but also a good command of the system of nonverbal behavior in the target speech community.  Like most aspects of one?fs culture, nonverbal behavior is not something taught explicitly but acquired through observation and imitation with or without awareness.  To be an effective L2 communicator, learners must first become more conscious and knowledgeable about the patterns of nonverbal behavior used by native speakers and those of their own.

Wolfgang (1979) found that teachers often are unaware of the nonverbal signals they transmit in the classroom, and Galloway (1980) reported that nonnative teachers tend to ignore nonverbal communication and are less receptive than native teachers to the communicative content of their students' nonverbal behavior.  Both studies suggest that L2 teachers should pay more attention to their own body language and that of their students.

In teaching nonverbal communication, teachers can make use of videos, television, comic strips, etc. from both L1 and L2 cultures, and encourage students to discover and compare the differences and similarities.  They can also touch upon differences in cultural values.  However, they must not give an impression that one must learn to lose one's own identity in cross-cultural communication.  As Eisenberg & Smith (1971) caution, it is dangerous for L2 teachers to assume that their own forms of nonverbal expressions are natural and correct and those of others are bizarre and wrong.  Since the purpose of introducing learners to differences in cultural communication systems is not to advocate ethnocentrism, but to facilitate communication and to avoid misunderstanding and tension, teachers must be careful not to make any remarks that lead to problems related to prejudice and racism.




Birdwhistell, R. L. (1970). Kinesics and Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Efron, D. (1972). Gesture, race, and culture. The Hague: Mouton.

Eisenberg, M., & Smith, R. R. (1971). Nonverbal communication. New York: Bobbs Merrill.

Galloway, V. B. (1980). Perceptions of the communicative efforts of American students of Spanish. The Modern Language Journal, 64(4), 428-437.

Koustaff, L. (1997). Marathon mouth. Japan: Intercom Press.

Poyatos, F. (1983). New perspectives in nonverbal communication. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

von Raffler-Engel, W. (1976). Linguistic and kinesic correlations in code switching.  In W. C. McCormack & S. A. Wurm (Eds.), Language and man: Anthropological issues (pp. 229-238). The Hague: Mouton.

Wolfgang, A. 1979. The teacher and nonverbal behavior in the multicultural classroom.  In A. Wolfgang (Ed.), Nonverbal behavior: Applications and cultural implications (pp. 159-174). New York: Academic Press.


Descriptions of Thirty Emblems

Item #

Description and Intended Meaning(s)


To shrug your shoulders and stretch both arms to the side with open hands to tell that you don't know.


To indicate that the food is hot by opening your mouth, spreading your fingers, and flapping your hand back and forth near your mouth.


To indicate "me" by pointing at your chest with the index finger.


To express "good luck" or "I hope" by raising your hand and twisting the middle finger over and around the index finger.


To express "shame on you" by rubbing your left index finger upward and downward with the right index finger.


To signal that you are hungry by rubbing your belly with an opened hand in a circular direction.


To express "so-so" by lifting your opened hand up to your waist or above with the palm facing downward and waving it side to side gently.


To make a promise by crossing your heart.


To show that you are relieved by first putting your hand on your forehead and then quickly tossing it down.  Give a sigh of relief simultaneously.


To clasp your hands tightly and place them in front of your chest when you pray or ask someone for help or forgiveness.


To indicate "money" or "give me money" by first pressing the thumb and the index finger together, and then rubbing the former against the latter in an outward direction.


To signal "OK," "good," "perfect," or "delicious" by holding up your hand, with the palm facing outward and the thumb and index finger touching to form a circle.  The other fingers are extended and slightly spread.


To give a "bad rating" by extending your thumb and turning it down in a counter clockwise direction, with other fingers bent.  Pull your face to show dissatisfaction simultaneously.


To show someone that you are mad or to warn someone to watch out by extending your index finger, and pointing directly at the person.  Raise your eyebrows and keep your eyes wide open simultaneously.


To tell others that you give up or have no idea by opening both arms and raising them up, with both hands open and the palms facing upward.


To indicate "telephone," "phone me" or "I'm on the phone" by placing one hand beside your ear and extending only your thumb and your little finger.


To signal "go ahead," "you," or "after you" by stretching out one hand, with the fingers pointing to the person you are facing.


To tell someone to stop by looking straight at the person, stretching out one arm, with the hand wide open and the palm facing toward him/her.


To show your determination to do something by raising your arms up to the waist or above with both thumbs up.


To indicate "just a little" by extending both the thumb and the index finger in a horizontal position, with the thumb below and parallel to the index finger, keeping the two about an inch apart.


To show others that your are proud of yourself or by tossing your head smartly upward and backward in a short jerk.  You raise your arms up with both thumbs sticking up as if you're pulling your suspenders forward simultaneously.


To express "no way" by first crossing both arms and spreading them out, and then tossing them down sharply.


To calm someone down by slowly and gently pressing both hands in a downward direction, with the palms facing down.


To indicate that someone is crazy by first raising your hand up to your ear, and then making a circling motion with the index finger.


To tell others that you have forgotten something or you are a fool by first hitting your opened hand against your forehead, and then quickly raising your hand up in the air.


To place one hand beside your ear with the palm facing outward to signal others to listen carefully or to repeat one's words.


To indicate a bad smell by holding your nose between your thumb and index finger.


To express "that was stupid" by sticking out your thumb and index finger and pointing the index finger toward your temple.


To show others that you are broke by turning your pockets inside out and placing your arms on both sides of your body, with the hands open and the palms facing upward.


To tell someone to go away by flapping your hand in an outward direction.



[1] This term refers to “arbitrarily coded gestures” that are “individual, group or culture-specific substitutes for words” (Poyatos, 1983, p.98).


[2] The emblems under investigation represent those used by the majority of Americans.  They are also very common in Australian, Canadian and British cultures.  The same recognition task has been conducted with English native speakers from the U.S., U.K. Canada and Australia.  All of them showed a high level of recognition.

Last modified: Tuesday, 6 September 2016, 10:58 PM