Sunday, June 7, 2009

Differences between my Culture and the US with Regard to Nonverbal Behavior

In this summer semester I am enjoying the writing class taught by Sheena Macpherson. It is a good challenge to brain because we need to read, reflect on the reading, compare to what we know or to our culture and to do other brain activities. This time I would love to share with you my essay about the differences in nonverbal communication in Russain and US culture.
“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said”, said Peter F. Drucker. In understanding what is said during communication, words play a very little role. Verbal communication is strongly supported by nonverbal communication which helps us understand the implied meaning of the speaker, his emotions, attitudes, and values. However, only knowledge of the culture can help us interpret most of the forms of the nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication in each culture differs in three ways: repertoire of behaviors, display rules and interpretations. Repertoire of behaviors includes body positions, movements, gestures, spatial requirements and postures specific to a particular culture. In their turn, display rules define what forms of nonverbal behavior are required, permitted or preferred in different situations. Interpretations of the same nonverbal behavior also vary from culture to culture. Being in the USA and watching people showed me that Russian and the US nonverbal communication have many differences and a few similarities among which especially noticeable are space, time and touch.
Spatial requirements for Russians and Americans are very similar but still different. I remember in the Intercultural Communication class consisting of international and American students having an assignment to converse for 2 minutes at the distance of one small step. By the end of the two endless minutes all American students were very far from their conversation partner. Those who kept one step distance were bent like gymnasts to have more distance at least between faces. It was no wonder because in the US culture it is typical to have personal space of about 4 feet and it is noticeable even in friendly conversations. When friends meet they shake hands or give a short hug and immediately step aside to have some distance for conversation. No one can invade American’s personal space.
Russian people, on the contrary, do not require that much personal space. They like to speak sitting or walking quite close to each other. When they converse facing each other, at the beginning of the conversation people usually keep some distance of about four feet, like Americans do. But, as the conversation proceeds, they tend to come closer and closer. However, they will still keep at least two feet distance. It is considered rude and unfriendly to keep large distance during the conversation. At the same time, people should leave some space between them for both partners feel comfortable. Remarkably, Russians like to converse with people opposite to them. For example, if the conversation is happening at the dinner table, they will more likely speak with that person who sits across the table rather than next to them.
Perception of time is a big issue for some cultures because of the differences in their time orientations and in the time systems they use. In the United States, time is money. The daily routine is scheduled and properly organized. Even meeting with friends is planned. Most of the European Americans always come on time whether for an appointment or a party. Americans speak in time measures and for each activity they assign a particular amount of time. When you need to meet with someone, you have to discuss the time a few days in advance. Each American has some kind of planner, organizer, or calendar where they look periodically. Time orientation in the US culture is for the future. Americans believe that tomorrow is the most important and that they create their future themselves. Looking at the US time-orientation and time system they use, they seem to be slaves of efficiency.
Russians, in contrast are present oriented. Russian proverbs say, ‘new time, new songs’, or ‘new time, new burden’. Russian people value their past, are proud of their rich history, and show respect to their past and history. However, they do not live by their past. Every new time brings something new and this newness is the most important. At the same time, they do not necessarily rely on something that will be good for the future. Russians often say, ‘I want everything and now’. For that reason, long-term projects are not much appreciated in Russia. Spontaneity and impulsivity are typical of Russians in any field: business or daily life. They can put aside a decision, prolong doing an important activity, but finally it will be done very fast and unexpected even to them themselves. The time system is also different to Russians. Being 15-20 minutes late or coming earlier is quite normal for Russians and is not considered impolite or disrespectful. Being not concerned about time themselves, Russians expect foreigners to respect the time of others.
With regard to the last concept under discussion, physical contact, the United States is considered a non-touching culture. Both men and women greet each other with a handshake or it can be a slight hug with stroking or patting. Hugging and kissing are not common for the US culture. Very often an attempt to hug, pat, or any kind of touch can be considered sexual harassment, depending on the people involved. If people walk touching each other in any way such as hugging or hand in hand, it can be viewed as a sexual relationship, especially between the same sex people. Touching your conversation partner can be considered aggressive and pushy. The necessity for personal space explains the lack of physical contact between conversation partners in the US culture.
Touch in Russia plays a role of energy exchange. When men meet, they shake hands. When women meet, they hug. Touching between opposite sex friends is not common, although close friends can sometimes hug. Shaking hands between a man and woman is considered rude and non-feminine. The attitude towards the same sex touching varies. On one hand, it is extremely undesirable when two men touch each other. Shaking hands is the only possible way of physical contact and any other contact will be socially unacceptable causing discomfort in other people. On the other hand, it is common when two women walk to hold each other’s elbows, or sit speaking and leaning toward or on each other or hugging one another. It is especially common between a mother and a child, sisters or good friends, and good friends of parents and their daughters. While speaking, especially explaining something, speakers can grab each other’s elbows or touch partner’s arm. A teacher can pat a pupil when he did a good job or as a way of encouragement. Touch in Russian culture shows affection, friendliness and give energy and strength to people.
Nonverbal communication varies from culture to culture. Russian and the US cultures have big differences in nonverbal behavior in terms of time, space and touch. Being more efficiency oriented, Americans differ from the spontaneous, relying-on-today Russians. Russians seem pushy and aggressive with their necessity for physical contact and view European Americans as cold, distant people. Only in spatial requirements they have some similarities which are still easily broken by Russians in a longer friendly conversation. All these differences tell that people should learn more about other cultures and try to be tolerant to others.
Thank you for reading such a long post!
Have a good start in the week!


  1. When I was young, a Russian freighter captain came to my house as our parents' dinner guest and hugged my mother so tight it lifted her off the floor. We kids giggled and giggled, but Dad was aghast.
    I really liked that ol' captain and until now assumed he just really had a thing for my mom. :-)
    I enjoyed reading this. I'd probably make a good Russian!

  2. You will definitely do a good Russian, Dee!

    And about that captain- I agree with your assumption :-)

  3. Hi Nate, now that I recovered from the misery of losing my only laptop, I will be writing on my blog. Hmm, yes, crisis of leaving 20's into 30's. You definately have a point.

    Cultural shock made matters even more worse, even though it was not the only trigger of what I saw in the mirror.

    I believe there are standards set by societies in general, for example in my case, at thirty I'm suppose to be married and bla bla, when we don't meet these sociatal expectations we can easily fall into a trap of stress and depression. I guess that was the frenzy moment that triggered me to write that piece on midlife crisis. I should call it early midlife crisis though.

    Anyway, hopefully I will be following your blog!