Understanding nonverbal communications in a diverse project team


The Project Management Institute’s (PMI®) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) includes the Communication Management knowledge area, (PMI, 2004, pp 221 - 236) which addresses communication planning, information distribution, performance reporting and stakeholder management, but does not cover another important way of communication in project teams, nonverbal communication which can often impact project performance. Nonverbal communication is defined as the non-linguistic messages that are consciously or unconsciously encoded and decoded through various mediums such as facial expressions, bodily gestures, space, touch, eye contact, time and tone in the environment in which the people communicate.(Cruz, p 13) In a diverse project environment, nonverbal communication can lead to misperception, misunderstanding and miscommunication. This paper will discuss, in some detail, many of the elements of nonverbal communications.


According to Albert Mehrabian there are three elements in face to face communications: words, tone of voice and body language. These three elements account differently for our liking for the person who puts forward the message: words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of the liking. They are often abbreviated as the “3 Vs” for Verbal, Vocal & Visual and also known as the “7%-38%-55% Rule”. (1971, p. 43)

Words, tone and body language need to support each other to produce congruent and consistent messages. A message impacted by emotions will produce incongruent messages in which words do not match non verbal cues.

Throughout the last 60 years, extensive research in the vocal and visual elements of communication has been conducted. Kinesis is focused on corporal gestures, Proxemics studies being space, Haptics studies physical interaction and touch, Oculesics is focused on eye contact, Chronemics studies the perception of time, and Paralinguistic focuses on vocal tone.

This paper will make reference to Latin Countries, Non-Latin Countries, Latin and Non-Latin. For the purposes of this paper:

  • Latin Countries are those countries speaking romance languages in Europe (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Romania)and Latin America (all Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries)
  • Non-Latin countries are those countries not speaking romance languages in Europe and in America continents (i.e. U.S.A., Canada and some Caribbean Islands)
  • Latin(s) is/are the inhabitant(s) of Latin Countries
  • Non-Latin(s) is/are the inhabitant(s) of Non-Latin Countries

Nonverbal Communications


Kinesics is the study of bodily movements and facial gestures such as nonverbal behaviour related to movement, either of any part of the body or the body as a whole. Kinesics was first used in 1952 by the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell who started studies on how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement; states that all movements of the body are not accidental and have meaning and a grammar that can be analyzed as the spoken language (Birdwhistell, 1970). The element of body movement or "kineme" is "similar to a phoneme because it consists of a group of movements which are not identical, but which may be used interchangeably without affecting social meaning" (Hall & Knapp 1992, p.94-95).

During my trips to Latin America, I have experienced, while engaging in formal or informal conversations with Latins, that facial and body gestures complement or emphasise the discussed topic. I have heard what Non-Latin colleagues say about Latins: “they speak with their hands”. All those gestures are used to emphasise portions of the conversation or to add nonverbal comments to the conversation while somebody else is talking.

I have identified that some gestures are unique to Latins and these may confuse Non-Latins participating in the conversation. As an example, pointing with puckered lips, depending on the context of the conversation, may have different meanings including:

  • Where is the box? – “there” pointing the lips to the place where the box is
  • Who will be doing this task? , “that person over there” pointing the lips to an individual
  • No words just pointing lips - “check him/her out”

Smiling is another ingredient in conversations and again, depending on the context, it may be have positive or negative connotations. It may be used to greet or thank people and as a sign of acceptance or rejection. Non-Latin may feel that the smiling is not appropriate in some context of the conversation. On the other hand, Latins may perceive Non-Latins as cold and unfriendly.

Ekman and Friesen (1969) classify kinesics into five categories:

  • Emblems are non-verbal messages that have a verbal counterpart. Emblems depending on the context may have different meanings.
  • Illustrators are used more consistently to illustrate what is being said.
  • Affective Displays are body, or more frequently facial, movements that display a certain affective state, i.e. emotions.
  • Regulators are non-verbal signs that regulate, modulate and maintain the flow of speech during a conversation.
  • 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. Adaptors may interpreted emblems in a multi-cultural environment.


Proxemics is the study of space in interpersonal relationships. This is the non-transgressible distance one stands from another person when speaking. In Hall’s The Hidden Dimension (1966), he defines the term personal space as the region surrounding each person, or the area which a person considers their domain or territory. Often if entered by another being without this being desired, it makes them feel uncomfortable. (pp 125-128) The amount of space a being needs falls into two categories, immediate individual physical space (determined by imagined boundaries), and the space an individual considers theirs to live in (often called habitat). These are dependent on many things, such as growth needs, habits, courtships, etc.

Personal space is highly variable. Those who live in a densely populated environment tend to have smaller personal space requirements. Thus a resident of India may have a smaller personal space than someone who is home on the Mongolian steppe, both in regard to home and individual. It can be determined on a habitat level by profession, livelihood, and occupation. Personal space can also be heavily affected by a person's position in society, with the more affluent a person being the larger personal space they demand.

While it is highly variable and difficult to measure accurately the best estimates for individual physical space place it at about 24.5 inches (60 centimeters) on either side, 27.5 inches (70 centimeters) in front and 15.75 inches (40 centimeters) behind for an average Non-Latin (Exhibit 1).

Individual Physical Space

Exhibit 1 – Individual Physical Space

Hall assigned and titled areas of personal space into four distinct zones (Exhibit 2):

  • The Intimate Zone. This zone would be considered for whispering and embracing and would encompass eighteen inches (45.7 centimetres) around your body.
  • The Personal Zone. This zone would be used for conversing with close friends and would encompass a zone between eighteen inches (45.7 centimetres) to four feet (120 centimetres).
  • The Social Zone. This zone would encompass space of four (120 centimetres) to ten feet (300 centimetres) around your body. It would be used for conversing with acquaintances.
  • The Public Zone. The public zone is used for interacting with strangers. This zone encompasses between ten (300 centimetres) to 25 feet (762 centimetres).
Areas of Personal Space

Exhibit 2 – Areas of Personal Space

During face-to-face communications, Latins may feel that Non-Latins are not close enough and begin getting closer until the gap is reduced, in response Non-Latin will step back trying to establish a comfortable space zone. The Latin behaviour may be perceived by Non-Latins as being pushy or invading “personal space”, meanwhile Latins may perceive Non-Latin behaviour as uninterested in the conversation.


Haptics is the study of touch in nonverbal communications. For humans, touch is an extremely important sense since it provides information about surfaces and textures and is an important component of nonverbal communication in interpersonal relationships.

Hesling (1974, p10) outlines five haptic categories:

  • Functional/professional
  • Social/polite
  • Friendship/warmth
  • Love/intimacy
  • Sexual/arousal

Due to the nature of this paper only the first two categories will be addressed.

Functional and professional touching varies in Latin and Non-Latin cultures. Non-Latin are low to moderate contact culture in corporate settings while Latin are high contact. Some examples include male-female and female-female kissing each other’s cheeks as a form to say hello. In countries like Argentina and Uruguay male-male kissing each other cheeks is also accepted, which may be confusing for both Latins and Non-Latins.

Forms of touching like light striking, pushing, pulling, pinching and kicking; or simulating strangling or hand-to-hand fighting may be included in informal environments among individuals in Latin Countries and depending on the flexibility in the working environment may be used, depending on the context of business conversation. This kind of touching with Non-Latins may be misinterpreted and uncomfortable for Non-Latin and could be considered as physical abuse.

In the last 15 to 20 years touching in professional environments has become a controlled behavior in countries with strict sexual harassment policies. In many global corporations these policies apply to all branches which may represent conflicts between corporate and local culture.

Social and polite category addresses touching in other environments where an individual interacts. For this purpose. researchers designed a blueprint for touchable and non touchable areas. Touchable areas are referred as Non-vulnerable body parts (NVBP) that include the hand, arm, shoulder and upper back, and vulnerable body parts (VBP) are all other body regions (Jones & Yarbrough, pp 19-56, 1985).

Civil inattention is defined as the polite way to manage interaction with strangers by not engaging in any interpersonal communication or needing to respond to a stranger’s touch. The elevator study explains this phenomenon. A man (A) stands alone in the elevator, right in the middle, equidistant from the four walls. Before the doors close, a woman enters. Unconsciously, the man moves over to make room for her. Both stand side by side with equal amounts of space between them and between walls of the elevator. On the way up, the elevator stops and a man (B) gets on and the woman and the other man (A) slide slightly to the side and to the back, maximizing the space occupied in the elevator. During the second elevator stop, another man (C) gets on. The man (B) in front steps to the back center and the woman and man (A) move slightly toward the front, forming a diamond shape that again maximizes each person’s distance from the elevator walls and the people next to them. It is uncommon for people to look, talk or touch to the person next to them. While it may be so crowded that they 'touch' another person, they will often maintain an expressionless demeanor so not to affect those around them (Goffman, 1963).


Oculesics is the study of the use of the eyes in interpersonal communications. Usually referred as “eye contact”; this is a form of nonverbal communication and has a large influence on social behavior. Frequency and interpretation of eye contact varies between Latin and Non-Latin Cultures.

Non-Latins tend to have a steady look into the eyes when speaking in order to maintain and establish credibility and trust. Latins, particularly in Latin America, will initiate eye contact with the interlocutor to acknowledge and then their look will wander while speaking. This behavior is misinterpreted by Non-Latins as “lack of confidence” or “not being totally truthful”

In Latin culture direct and prolonged eye contact may mean that the individual may be challenging the interlocutor or showing angry feelings. Depending on the context the prolonged eye contact could also be associated to flirting.

In East Asia, eye contact can provoke misunderstandings between people of different nationalities. Keeping direct eye contact with a work supervisor or elderly persons leads them to assume you are being an aggressive or rude individual.


“The schedule is sacred” Edward T. Hall (1990, p 132) discussion about American’s viewpoint of time Chronemics is the study of time perception in nonverbal communication. Latin and Non-Latin cultures have different perceptions and reactions to time including punctuality, willingness to wait, and interactions. The use of time can affect lifestyles, daily agendas, speed of speech, and movements.

In some Latin American countries time is an indicator of status and power. For example, the boss can interrupt daily project progress to hold an impromptu meeting during the middle of the work day, yet the average worker would have to make an appointment to see the boss.

“Time is money” is a well known saying across the world that fits the time perception of Non-Latin culture, which views time as valuable, a scarce resource. Non-Latins attach the language of money to time: spend it, save it, waste it, and budget it. The uses of calendar software to monitor, coordinate, and fill our schedules much like the use of financial software to track our checkbooks (Peterson, 2004, Part 4). Although Latin’s time perception has been evolving into a more Non-Latin there is still a gap in the perception.

Time perception categories are Monochronic and Polychronic.

Monochronic perception is originated during the Industrial Revolution where "factory life required the labor force to be on hand and in place at an appointed hour" (Guerrero, DeVito & Hecht, 1999, p. 238). Non-Latin cultures are committed to regimented schedules and may view those who do not subscribe to the same perception of time as disrespectful.

Latin cultures are Polychronic, meaning that several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time. Polychronic perception is less focused on the preciseness of accounting for each and every moment instead, their culture is more focused on relationships, rather than watching the clock. There is no problem being “late” for an event if they are with family or friends, because the relationship is what really matters.

An example of the polychronic time perception in Mexico is the wedding ceremony invitations. The invitation will state the place and the time where the wedding ceremony will take place. It is common practice to print the time one hour before the actual time of the ceremony, perhaps to make sure that guests will be on time for the ceremony.


Paralinguistic is the study of voice and how words are said. When our mouths open we reveal numerous things about ourselves that have nothing at all to do with the words we are uttering and manipulating the nonverbal elements of our message can completely change its meaning.

Paralinguistic cues refer to everything having to do with speech for the words we actually utter. Vocal cues include:

  • Rate: Refers to the number of spoken word per minute. Inhabitants of Latin Countries speak faster than others and generally men speak faster than women. Rapid rates of speech have been correlated with serenity and confidence.
  • Volume: Refers to voice’s loudness or softens. Confidence, assertiveness, and boldness are reflected in louder speech.
  • Pitch: Refers to voice high or low in pitch? A high-pitched voice can sound noisy and childlike. Lower pitches are associated with greater credibility. Men rarely use the highest level of pitch that women use.
  • Inflection: Refers to variations in pitch. Monotonic voice is perceived as boring and less charismatic. Inflection sustains credibility while speaking.
  • Quality: Refers to those vocal characteristics that allow you to differentiate one voice from another. Is the voice small, feminine, or tremulous; thin, throaty, or fronted (aloof); tense, flat, grating, nasal, harsh, or shrill? All of these represent different combinations of rate, pitch, and volume.
  • Intensity: How emphatic are the statements? For example, "I really want you to do it now!" The intensity can be a direct indicator of the speaker’s passion and commitment or lack of it!
  • Silence: Silence can speak volumes. It can provide thinking time, hurt another person, isolate oneself, prevent communication, convey feelings, create personal distance, signal respect and reverence, provide greater opportunity for increasing awareness of the self and others, accent or emphasize certain messages, say nothing, allow the speaker to explore his or her own thoughts and feelings, or create interpersonal distance. Pausing is a form of silence that can be motivated by anxiety. It also impacts the rhythm and cadence or flow of the speech.

Final Words

In the global environment we are living in, it is important to deal with cultural differences in communications. The ability of “switching cultural channels” will need to be developed in order to be mindful, respectful or empathetic toward cultural differences, communications styles and values is key to becoming intercultural competent in a multicultural business setting. Once mastered, this new ability lowers levels of pain, confusion, frustration and discomfort that occur due to misperception, misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

As you may experience, nonverbal communications in multicultural teams are challenging for global organizations and without special attention, the team performance may fall short of company and team member expectations.

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© 2008, Conrado Morlan, MBA, PMP, PRINCE2 Practitioner
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, CO



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