Kinesics is the non-verbal behaviour related to movement, either of any part of the body, or the body as a whole. In short all communicative body movements are generally classified as kinesic.
Kinesic communication is probably one of the most talked about, and most obvious non-verbal communication form. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most confusing areas of non-verbal communication behaviour as the various meanings communicated through body movements seem endless across cultures. Often, body movements that are clearly understandable in one culture make no sense in another. Yet often enough, frequently used kinesic movements in one culture may be highly offensive in another culture. Ekman and Friesen (1969) in their seminal work on kinesics classify kinesics into five categories: emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adapters.
Emblems are non-verbal messages that have a verbal counterpart. For example, the British sign for Victory (forefinger and middle finger erect) symbolises the letter V, a sign for victory often seen painted onto house walls during WWII. However, the same movement may symbolise the number two in the US and may be seen as insulting in Australia.
Other examples include the OK-sign, symbolising the O. However, this may be misunderstood as symbolising the number zero, and as such suggesting that the person the kinesic movement is aimed at is in fact “zero”, or worthless. It may also be seen as symbol of the female genitalia, and as such understood to be obscene.
Emblems as such are a bewildering array of different meanings. The list of possible interpretations and different meanings is, unfortunately, sheer endless. However, as they occur only sporadically, and usually in a very specific context, a wrongly used emblematic kinesic movement may relatively easily be identified as such. Because of their popularity, it is relatively easy, and usually easily understandable to the counterpart, that the movement was not intended in the way it might have been understood.
Illustrators on the other side are less clearly linked to specific sayings or words being used. Illustrators are used more consistently to illustrate what is being said. Again, the usage and the amount of illustrators used is different from culture to culture. For example Latin cultures in general make more use of illustrators than Anglo-Saxon cultures. And again, Anglo-Saxon cultures make more use of illustrators than many Asian cultures.
In terms of influence on business communication the importance of illustrators usage is quite significant. Especially as these are more continuous as well as more subconsciously interpreted than emblematic kinesic movements. For example in some Asian cultures extensive use of illustrators are often interpreted as a lack of intelligence, whereas in Latin cultures the absence of illustrators is easily construed as a lack of interest.
Affective Displays are body, or more frequently facial, movements that display a certain affective state, i.e. emotions. Affective displays are often less conscious than illustrators, but also occur less frequently. As argued before, the basic affective displays are often understood without much problem, as they convey universal emotional feelings. However, the degree and frequency with which affective displays are used across cultures is much less universal.
A lack of such affective displays may well be understood as a lack of emotion, which in turn is probably wrong. There has been a long standing stereotype of ‘hot-tempered’ and ‘cold’ cultures, much of which can be attributed to the extend to which emotions are expressed, especially by using affective displays. An Italian, for example, who makes extensive use of affective displays to express his anger at a certain situation, may well have the same degree of anger as a Japanese person. Yet, a Japanese person in this situation would be expected to show significantly fewer affective display movements than his Italian counterpart. This, however, does not suggest that the Japanese person is less angry than his Italian counterpart.
The subconscious nature of affective displays, and the varying degrees of their usage make the interpretation of affective displays frequently quite bewildering across cultures. For example the frequent and extensive subconscious usage of affective display movements by an Italian can be understood as threatening or imposing in a culture in which affective display movements are more restraint. I.e. the Italian person seems to ‘blow up in one’s face’, although that is probably not what he intended at all.
Regulators are non-verbal signs that regulate, modulate and maintain the flow of speech during a conversation. These can be both kinesic, such as the nodding of a head, as well as nonkinesic, such as eye movements. Fatt (1998) suggests, that these are one of the most culturally determined kinesic signs.
As regulators moderate the flow of information, and are frequently used as a feedback of whether or not the other person has understood the message they can be highly confusing. Vargas (1986) notes, that black students in the US felt insulted, because they perceived that they were being talked down to by their white educators. She concluded that black students made different use of regulators and that therefore the white educators were under the impression that the black student did not understand what was being said to them. Whereas the white students would nod an murmur “uh-huh”, black students in the research appeared to nod less perceivably and use “mhm” as a regulator utterance.
Regulators are vital to the flow of information. Therefore a misinterpreted regulatory non-verbal sign may be highly confusing in international business communication, and lead to serious problems, such as the problem illustrated above.
Adaptors include postural changes and other movements at a low level of awareness, frequently made to feel more comfortable or to perform a specific physical function. Because adaptors are usually carried out a low level of awareness, they have been hailed as the secret to understanding what your conversation partner really thinks. During the 1970’s a number of books, such as Nirenberg and Calero’s ‘How to Read a Person Like a Book’ popularised adaptors as the keys to ‘unlocking others secret thoughts’. Even today, adaptors are frequently seen as the ‘secret weapon’ of the HR executive (cf. Arthur, 1991). The importance given to adaptors seems however overstated, as well as oversimplified. Many adaptor movements, such as moving in a chair, may be employed more frequently to resolve a specific physical situation, rather than being an indicator of ‘secret thoughts’.
Adaptors as such may not carry any significant meaning, neither in their own culture nor across cultural boundaries. However, adaptors may easily be read as emblems across cultural borders, even if not intended. As adaptors are usually performed with a low level of awareness, such a misinterpretation can be highly significant precisely because the person performing the adaptor movement may not be aware that he is performing any precise movement (as would be the case when he would make a movement understood by him as en emblem). For example, the showing of the soles of the feet or shoe may be a result of taking up a more relaxed seating position. However, in many Arabic countries this gesture may be understood as an offensive emblem.
Kinesics are an important part of non-verbal communication behaviour. The movement of the body, or parts thereof, conveys may specific meanings, and many interpretations are culture bound. As many movements are carried out at a subconscious or at least low-awareness level, kinesic movements carry a significant risk of being misinterpreted in an intercultural communication situation.
Unfortunately, the sheer variety and complexity of kinesics makes it impossible to find an easy solution. Quaint “Do’s and Don’ts” can never capture the variety of emblems, illustrators, affective displays and other kinesic movements. However, awareness may reduce the amount of misinterpretation arising from the usage, or in fact lack of usage, of certain kinesic movements.
it is taken from http://stephan.dahl.at/nonverbal/kinesics.html