Dr. Paul Ekman published his research identifying seven universal facial expressions of emotions back in the 1970’s. About four months ago, researchers published a new study showing evidence of a universal nonverbal communication system that comes into play when we gesture without talking.

The scientists concluded that language has a major impact on our thinking, and influences gestures when we speak. It’s called “co-speaking” gestures. When asked to deliver a specific piece of information to someone else, the sequence of gestures differed depending on the language the person was speaking. That means the grammar construction of the native language determined the order of the gestures. However, this was not the case when people were using “silent gestures.” No matter their culture, language or age, the participants used similar gestures in a similar sequence when giving the same information without words.

The scientists were intrigued that the findings may suggest we all start out with a nonverbal system of communications that is universal. That system “takes a back seat” once we learn language. As researchers continue to explore this topic, future studies may focus on identifying commonalities in nonverbal communications. Most of us are aware of certain nonverbal signals that have different meanings across cultures. This would look at the flip side, to explore areas where our hard-wired understanding of nonverbals could improve interactions between people from different cultural backgrounds.

How have you seen nonverbals help or harm communications in international business communications?