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The relationship between

intercultural and nonverbal
communication revisited:
From facial expression to
Ringo Ma
Associate Professor in the Department of
Communication , State University of New York ,
Fredonia, NY, 14063 E-mail:
Published online: 17 Mar 2009.

To cite this article: Ringo Ma (1999) The relationship between intercultural and
nonverbal communication revisited: From facial expression to discrimination, New
Jersey Journal of Communication, 7:2, 180-189, DOI: 10.1080/15456879909367366

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The New Jersey Journal of Communication. Volume 7, No. 2, Fall 1999, pages 180-189

The Relationship Between Intercultural and

Nonverbal Communication Revisited: From Facial
Expression to Discrimination

Ringo Ma1
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The inclusion of nonverbal communication has given communication studies a broader range of cross-
cultural application and eliminated some "blind spots" in intercultural communication. Theories of
nonverbal communication can now be applied to study discrimination in intercultural contexts. Some
modules of discrimination are proposed to suggest a new relationship between intercultural
communication and nonverbal communication studies.

Intercultural communication and nonverbal communication are recognized as

two important areas of communication study. Prominent scholars such as Ray
Birdwhistell, Paul Ekman, and Edward T. Hall are pioneers in both areas. Their
cross-cultural studies of nonverbal communication have stimulated a broader
interest in intercultural communication, which led to the founding of the
International and Intercultural Communication Annual in 1974 (published by the
Speech Communication Association) and the International Journal of Intercultural
Relations in 1977 (published by the Society for Intercultural Education, Training
and Research) among other publications in intercultural communication. The two
areas continued to blend after the 1970s, though the study of intercultural
communication is no longer limited to nonverbal behavior. There are numerous
studies that have further demonstrated the close connection between intercultural
communication and nonverbal communication after the mid-1970s (e.g., Burgoon,
1992; Cline & Puhl, 1984; Matsumoto & Kishimoto, 1983; Sanders & Wiseman,
1990; Schneider, 1985; Shuter, 1977). Most of the studies, however, focus on
micro nonverbal behavior in cross-cultural or intercultural contexts. The macro

1. Ringo Ma (Ph.D., University of Florida) is an Associate Professor in the Department of

Communication at the State University of New York, Fredonia, NY 14063 ( He has
taught in Canada and the United States, and guest-lectured at twelve universities/colleges in the
People's Republic of China. His major research area is communication and culture in East Asia and
North America. He has contributed articles to International and Intercultural Communication Annual,
Communication Quarterly, Southern Communication Journal, World Communication, Journal of
Pragmatics, and Journal of Asian and African Studies. He is also the winner of the 1997
Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International and Intercultural Communication Division
of the National Communication Association (for the best article published in 1996). Some ideas
included in this essay were presented at the annual conference of the Eastern Communication
Association convention, Baltimore, MD, April 1997.

Copyright ®1999 by Ringo Ma. All Rights Reserved

The Relationship Between Intercultural and Nonverbal Communication Revisited 181

issues such as the theoretical and conceptual development of the two areas due to
their mutual influence has yet to be addressed and is worthy of scholarly attention.
Discrimination as a social problem has caused severe tension between people
of different ethnic background, gender, and sexual orientation. Although
discrimination is usually communicated and detected through nonverbal channels,
it has not received the attention it deserves from the scholars in intercultural
communication and nonverbal communication. Fiske (1998) also notices a dearth
of scholarship on discrimination in social psychology. This paper raises some
macro issues of culture and communication that have been closely tied to
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nonverbal communication and proposes modules of discrimination to suggest a

new relationship between intercultural communication and nonverbal
communication studies.

Intercultural Communication and Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal research has roots in biology, anthropology, experimental

psychology, social psychology, sociology, and communication (DePaulo &
Friedman, 1998). Most scholars trace it back to Darwin's (1872) theory of
universal expression of emotions. According to Burgoon, Buller, and Woodall
(1989), nonverbal communication is the "unspoken dialogue" and involves "all
those messages that people exchange beyond the words themselves" (p. 3). Knapp
(1972) associates nonverbal communication with "all those human responses
which are not described as overtly manifested words (either spoken or written)"
(p. 57). Taking the use of nonverbal cues in computer-mediated communication
into consideration, DePaulo and Friedman (1998) write that "nonverbal
communication is the dynamic, mostly face-to-face exchange of information
through cues other than words" (p. 4). On the basis of the above definitions, the
history of communication studies in the West clearly demonstrates a gradual
recognition of nonverbal communication. In Aristotle's Rhetoric, argumentation
through verbal messages is regarded as the key to success in communication
(Thonssen & Baird, 1948, p. 331). In the United States, this rhetorical tradition
continued for a long period of time. At the end of the 19th century, the
elocutionists emphasized the use of vocal variations and body movements as the
major component of public speaking. However, they "sought to save classical
rhetoric by rediscovering its precepts of delivery and by emphasizing them by
themselves" (Howell, 1959, p. 18). Their teaching did not reflect a holistic view
in which nonverbal communication is an integral part of a complex process of
human communication.
Contemporary views of communication that dominate current undergraduate
textbooks emerged in the 1960s. For example, Barnlund (1962) argued that the

The New Jersey Journal of Communication, Volume 7, No. 2, Fall 1999

182 Ringo Ma

traditional "speaker-centered philosophy of communication" should be replaced

by a "meaning-centered philosophy of communication" (p. 200). Berlo (1960)
identified five senses as communication channels. Watzlawick, Beavin, and
Jackson (1967) contended that messages can be interpreted on the relationship and
content levels. More recently, Bavelas (1990) reveals that all behavior has the
potential to communicate. A common denominator in these views is the
recognition of nonverbal messages, or the unspoken dialogue, in human
communication systems. Communication is conceptualized as an ongoing
meaning-sharing process which does not necessarily involve a significant amount
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of talking between two persons.

The new approach has given communication studies a wider range of
application and made the communication field less monolithic. It also contributed
to the rise of intercultural communication study in the 1970s. Condon and Yousef
(1975) wrote: "what is identified through language in some societies is identified
nonverbally in others" (p. 183). In Japan, as Barnlund notes (1989), "words are
somewhat distrusted and seen as less reliable guides to a complex and elusive
reality," thus, "words are a, but not the, means of communication" (p. 42). In
explaining why Chinese often say "yes" for "no" and "no" for "yes" Ma (1996)
notes that "within the Chinese culture, the authenticity of a 'yes' message is
usually established through contextual and nonverbal cues" (p. 259). Furthermore,
Althen (1992) observed that Americans "think it important to 'spell things out,'
to 'make things clear,' by means of comprehensive verbal disquisition" and are
"generally quite unskilled in 'reading' other people's non-verbal messages" (p.
416). As suggested in these studies, insensitivity to nonverbal communication
creates "blind spots" and constitutes a major barrier in intercultural
The inclusion of nonverbal communication has given communication studies a
broader range of cross-cultural application. Theories of nonverbal communication
can now be applied to discrimination, a previously underexplored area of
intercultural communication.

Nonverbal Communication in Discrimination

As places throughout the world become increasingly multicultural, intercultural

communication problems, such as lack of communication and misunderstanding,
are not limited to those experienced by tourists. Since different cultures must
work in the same environment, they can not satisfy each other's needs merely by
accommodating or patronizing each other on a superficial level. Equal treatment
is demanded in every capacity. However, on the other hand, discrimination is far
from extinct and has caused serious problems in intercultural communication.

The New Jersey Journal of Communication, Volume 7, No. 2, Fall 1999

The Relationship Between Intercultural and Nonverbal Communication Revisited 183

Fiske (1998) notes that, among category-based reactions, "stereotyping is taken

as the most cognitive component, prejudice as the most affective component, and
discrimination as the most behavioral component" (p. 357). In other words, while
the three are closely related, discrimination occurs when negative stereotyping and
prejudice are translated into communication behavior. According to the
International Labour Office (1968), the term "discrimination" includes "any
distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of race, colour, sex,
religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, which has the
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effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in

employment or occupation" (p. 7).
According to Fiske (1998), "hot discrimination" is developed from "disgust,
resentment, hostility, and anger," whereas "cold discrimination" is "based on
stereotypes of an outgroup's interests, knowledge, and motivations" (pp. 374-
375). In a similar vein, Eagly and Chaiken (1998) contend, "symbolic or modern
racism" which endorses work-ethic themes (e.g., "economic advancement follows
from hard work") is different from earlier forms of more overt and hostile
prejudice and discrimination. This view "promotes internal attributions for the
social and economic problems faced by some minorities (e.g., lack of discipline
and energy) and discourages external attributions (e.g., job discrimination) (p.
285). The "iron ring of law and custom" proposed by Mendelson (1962) suggests
a vicious cycle in which "discrimination generates inferiority which in turn
generates discrimination" (p. 2). In addition, Cherry (1989) found that people
with different political ideologies tend to hold different views toward eliminating
discrimination. For example, conservatives contend that competitive forces make
discrimination so costly that it discourages discriminatory behavior in the
marketplace. Liberals agree that competitive forces can be beneficial, but they do
not believe that these forces are strong enough to have a significant impact on
discriminatory behavior.
Addressing this issue from a communication perspective, Van Dijk (1987)
emphasizes that, in order to understand prejudice and discrimination, how
communicative events in general, and sources, information, or beliefs in
particular, are interpreted and reproduced has to be examined.
Although analysis of how the discourse of prejudice is interpreted and
reproduced can provide an in-depth understanding of discrimination,
discrimination is not always communicated with words. Most people in U.S.
organizations are aware of the legal implications of discrimination, so they tend
be careful in their verbal behavior when they are unfavorable toward an outgroup
member. Even if an organization or individual supports the idea of equal
opportunity in a written policy or verbal message, what is actually done could
have suggested the opposite. As indicated in a report by Quinn, Tabor, and

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184 RingoMa

Gordon (1968), equal opportunity policies may simply imply lipservice in many
organizational settings: "corporate behavior has been discussed as if it were
always consistent with corporate policy. This may not always be true. What a
company does is sometimes inconsistent with its policy statements; these
inconsistent company behaviors define policy for the manager and may influence
his [sic] decisions in a manner contrary to stated policy"(p. 79).
Research also discovered a general pattern of overt friendliness and covert
rejection (implied in differential treatments) in interracial encounters between
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blacks and whites (Weitz, 1972). Therefore, the only way to detect
discrimination, under many circumstances, is through the unspoken dialogue. In
communication studies, the verbal dimension of discrimination has been
extensively explored (e.g., Kirkland, Greenberg, & Pysczynski, 1987; Van Dijk,
1987). The role nonverbal communication plays hi discrimination, however, has
yet to be established. In the next section of this essay, some previously identified
cases of discrimination are presented in five modules to demonstrate the nonverbal
components of discrimination. All the cases were collected from junior
communication professors at annual conventions of the National Communication
Association (NCA) over the past seven years. The cases were first disclosed in
informal conversations. Later, the victims were consulted for accuracy before this
essay was written.

Module One

In module one, members of the majority group are less willing to give credit
to minority members for similar or better accomplishments. An Asian professor
was working on her Ph. D. dissertation during her first year of teaching in a
communication department in which two other faculty members were also
working on their Ph. D. dissertations. She was the first to complete her
dissertation, about which the department showed no enthusiasm. However, the
other two were given credit for almost every little progress they were making,
even though one completed the dissertation much later and the other one has not
completed hers yet.
The unspoken dialogue exchanged between the department chair and the junior
faculty member was "You don't deserve the same honor as others even though
you perform better." The message was crystallized when related events were
pieced together over an extended period of time.

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The Relationship Between Intercultural and Nonverbal Communication Revisited 185

Module Two

In this module, different criteria were applied to evaluate minority members.

An Asian professor was told by his chair and dean to prepare a teaching folder or
portfolio for each course he taught as a requirement for the evaluation of his
teaching. He found later that nobody in the department had ever been asked to do
the same thing, including those faculty members hired after him.
The silent message the Asian professor received was "a different set of criteria
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applies to the evaluation of your work." At the beginning it was unclear whether
it was a new requirement or a requirement for him only. However, the message
became clear as newly hired professors were not requested to do the same thing.

Module Three

In module three, gatekeepers such as information officers and newspaper

editors, consciously or unconsciously ignore or downplay the accomplishments of
minority members. An Asian professor submitted a news item to a campus
newsletter in which he included information regarding his three publications.
When it appeared in the newsletter, it became a small-sized item. Neither the
names of the journals nor the titles of the articles were included. However,
publications by other professors, especially white male professors, are often
overstated in the newsletter. For example, an article included in a professional
newsletter is presented as a publication in the official journal of a professional
organization. A regular conference paper became the topic of a special column
This is another case of discrimination though it was not executed by the victim's
superior. The Asian professor's inferior status was not created through overtly
manifested words but rather through underreporting his accomplishments in the
public sphere.

Module Four

In module four, members of the majority group are less likely to tolerate
minority members' boat-rocking behavior than majority members'. On the other
hand, they do not accept minority members' silence either. An Asian professor
joined a white colleague to criticize the hiring policy in his department and later
received a message from a colleague disciplining him. The primary trouble maker
(white) did not receive any message. On a different campus, another Asian
professor who seldom made any comment at department meetings was criticized
for lack of verbal contribution when his contract renewal was discussed.

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186 RingoMa

What has been presented to the two Asian professors through mutually
contradictory messages is "you can never be right, talking or not talking." In the
first case, the Asian professor was also hinted through implicit messages that he
does not have the right to criticize as others do.

Module Five

This module describes a situation in which minority members are accused of

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reading too much into it when they try to confront an unequal treatment. An Asian
professor was assigned to an office smaller than most of his colleagues' when he
was hired as a full-time tenure-track assistant professor. He was told that the
arrangement was based on seniority. A professor hired two years later, however,
was given a larger office. When the inconsistency was questioned, he was accused
of reading too much into it.
The messages the Asian professor received in this unspoken dialogue were
"You don't deserve equal treatment" and "You'd better believe whatever I tell
you otherwise you'll be in trouble." However, it took him a few years to decode
the silent message.


The scenarios presented above are real cases. Similar situations have happened
throughout the United States. None of the modules presented above used racist or
sexist language or constituted the main components of discrimination. In fact, the
language received by the discrimination victims was usually quite supportive, or
at least, non-suggestive to what was done to them. The unspoken discrimination,
however, was communicated through either differential treatments or inconsistent
Inconsistency is usually the key component of nonverbal discrimination. It
refers to either different expectations toward ingroup and outgroup members or
contradictory rules applied to the same outgroup member. The inconsistent pattern
identified in the five modules is different from the previously identified negatively
inconsistent nonverbal behavior (Leathers, 1997, p. 277). The latter is
simultaneously accompanied by a positive verbal message, so it can not be
detected in a single setting within a short moment. The former, nevertheless,
requires attention paid to communication behaviors over an extended period of
time. In other words, the unspoken dialogue can only be detected macroscopically
instead of from a traditional snapshot approach (through the experimental or
observational method).

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The Relationship Between Intercultural and Nonverbal Communication Revisited 187

Discrimination, as an "antisocial offense" (International Labor Office, 1968,

p. 6), is studied in many academic fields. In the communication field, special
attention should be given to the meaning component in this special form of human
conduct. In other words, how the meaning of discrimination is created and
consumed through inconsistency and its impact on active agents, victims, and
others should be a top priority. From numerous incidents that minority members
have experienced in the United States, nonverbal communication is the key to the
understanding of this communication process. Racist or sexist language is a good
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indicator of discrimination, but it is usually reserved for non-sophisticated agents

of discrimination, who tend not to have as much power to impair the well-being
of minority members as sophisticated ones. Sophisticated agents of discrimination
know how to protect themselves from being accused due to their verbal
comments. Their lethal force to minority members is nevertheless not diminished
with the waning of racist or sexist language.

Concluding Remarks

This essay intends to address some often ignored issues regarding the
relationship between intercultural communication and nonverbal communication.
The meanings created via nonverbal behavior at the micro level have usually been
emphasized. Larger issues including the role of nonverbal research in the study
of intercultural communication has yet to be addressed. It is argued in this essay
that the departure from the traditional argumentative approach to a more universal
view of communication was made possible largely due to the inclusion of
nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication also played a key role in the
development of intercultural communication. Furthermore, it has become the key
component of discrimination.
Future research can be conducted to further investigate the close relationship
between intercultural communication and nonverbal communication. What
constitutes intercultural communication that is related to discrimination and other
antisocial behaviors should be examined by both intercultural and nonverbal
specialists. A joint effort from the two areas will not only make the analysis of
the issue easier and more fruitful but also contribute to the further universalization
of communication studies.

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188 RingoMa


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