While research into cross-cultural non-verbal communication often focuses on facial expressions, body posture is also an important consideration. This may seem intuitive, as we all have experienced the role that body posture has in communicating emotions, but it has been neglected in most research, at the expense of its valuable potential for effectively reading people.
However, in a pair of studies, Dr. David Matsumoto sought to examine how body posture serves as a different non-verbal cue for people from American or Japanese cultures. While both of these studies date back to the 1980s, the evergreen and often neglected nature of this research merits consideration.
The first of these papers, coauthored with Dr. Tsutomu Kudoh, sought to test conventional wisdom about the role of posture in social situations against the possibility that these were limited only to Western culture. Past research had emphasized the immediacy of a reaction and the level of relaxation shown as the main predictors for how those postures would be understood.
In order to test these theories, Drs. Matsumoto and Kudoh recruited a large sample of Japanese subjects and asked them to develop a list of postures that they had encountered in real life. This resulted in a list of 40 postures which were then rated based on 16 criteria that included confident, respectful, friendly, or calm.
The participants were then instructed to imagine individuals they knew showcasing each of these postures and to rank them based on the aforementioned criteria. This allowed the researchers to assess the role that particular hierarchical roles may have in shaping these evaluations.
In fact, they found that their Japanese participants did evaluate posture in a significantly different way than Western-centric research had found. While Westerners emphasized like or dislike cues, these participants relied on cues rooted in status and power.
In another study with Dr. Kudoh, the researchers further examined the role of cultural norms in interpreting the emotions behind different postures. Given the conclusions of the previous paper, they emphasized that while the United States fosters an individualist culture, Japanese society is more characterized by status.
This paper gathered both American and Japanese students and asked each of these participants to rate the same postures with the same rubric from the last study. Interestingly, none of these postures were unknown to Americans, even though the list was developed by individuals from Japan.
Again, they found that the role of status differed dramatically between cultural groups, as Drs. Matsumoto and Kudoh found that considerations of status impacted social judgments of internal states and interpersonal interactions. They also found considerable variance between evaluations of different attitudes, such as pleasure and dominance.
Not only do these results help expand our understanding of cross-cultural behavior, but they also serve as a caution to avoid expectations that members of other cultures behave in the same way as do members of our own. This has crucial ramifications in attempting to read people, as we explicate in our cross-cultural communication workshops!