Nonverbal communication plays an important role in our daily life. More than 90% of all the communication we use in our daily life to share information is supported by body language. Nonverbal communication can be defined as the process of sending and receiving messages via means other than words, like facial expressions, gestures, behaviour, tone of voice, etc. This is why we should pay extra special attention to this topic. Moreover, nonverbal communication is bound to culture. In particular, there are differences among cultures and nationalities about the relative value of speech versus silence, the relative value of talk versus action, the role of animation, rhyme and exaggeration in speech. Because of these differences, the study of nonverbal communication always must be done within a social or cultural context.
The aim of our research is to analyze the importance of nonverbal communication in intercultural situations (Kenyan culture vs. Swiss culture). Within our research we studied literature on the topic, analyzed cultural encounters and nonverbal signs in the movie The White Masai, which, in its turn, was inspired by real-life events described in the autobiographical novel written by the German born writer Corinne Hofmann.
Brief Movie Review
The White Masai is a 2005 film, known also under the German title «Die Weisse Massai». The film, directed by Hermine Hunterbeburth, is set in Kenya in the years 1987 to 1990 and tells the story of relationship between a Maasai warrior (Lemalian) and a Swiss businesswoman (Carola) demonstrating a clash of two different cultures. The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by the German born writer Corinne Hofmann, a woman who immersed herself in a culture totally alien to her own.
Although we usually identify communication with speech, communication is composed of two dimensions – verbal and nonverbal. Whereas verbal communication often refers to the words we use in communication, nonverbal communication refers to communication that is produced by some means other than words.  According to E. Sapir, nonverbal behaviour is “an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all”. 
Nonverbal communication is different from person to person and especially from one culture to another. Cultural background defines their nonverbal communication as many forms of nonverbal communications like signs and signals are learned behavior.
Just as verbal language is broken up into various categories, there are also different types of nonverbal communication. We focus our attention on such types of nonverbal communication as kinesics, haptics, personal appearance and artifacts, proxemics, environment, paralanguage and silence.
1) Kinesics is the study of how we use body movement and facial expressions. We interpret a great deal of meaning through body movement, facial expressions, and eye contact. It is not always so easy to determine an exact meaning of body movements and facial expressions.
People of Maasai culture gesture a lot for emphasis when speaking. When angry or excited some will gesture so close that it is a warning that a physical altercation is eminent. In the film, when Lemalian gets angry with Carola, because as he thinks she has an affair with another man, he gestures a lot, with his index finger pointing at her, which for Maasai people is considered to be very rude (unless you’re looking for a confrontation, never point with your finger, which is equivalent to an obscene gesture). He hits his wife in the face and she hits him back. His face that very moment expresses a furious look – eyes wide open, lips pressed tightly together.
Gestures such as a smile or looking directly to other people’s eyes in Maasai culture mean that they have a personal relationship. That is why, after Carola went to the bank, Lemalian asked her if she knew the cashier since she smiled at him. In Western cultures, eye contact is very important because it expresses confidence and social communication. Indeed, the lack of eye contact can be interpreted as a sign of lack of confidence when talking with somebody else. Usually, a person can be judged badly when not keeping eye contact because people might think that he/she has unrevealed intentions or thoughts. In Maasai culture, on the other hand, people often lower their gaze to avoid long eye contact with a person from the opposite sex outside of their family. As a result, Carola´s straight eye contact with other men was misunderstood by Lemalian. He thought that Carola was flirting with other men in his absence; therefore, cultural differences in regards to eye contact caused Lemalian to become more jealous and insecure about Carola´s fidelity.
2) Haptics is the study of touch. Touch is the first type of nonverbal communication we experience as humans and is vital to our development and health.  We use touch to share feelings and relational meanings.
Some Kenyans maintain the handshake throughout a conversation. Though rare, this is a sign that the person feels comfortable or is attracted to the person whose hand she/he is holding. When Carola meets Maasai warriors one of them shakes her hand doing it in what may seem to people of Western culture rather weird. He wraps her hand with both of his hands, while watching Carola right in the eye (Lemalian’s mother greets Carola in the same way as well). This is the so-called “handhug”, which is perceived as being warm, friendly, trustworthy and honest. However, this type of handshake is usually done with people who share close bonds, as similar to hugs, this handshake is seen as an invasion of intimacy when done by people who have just met. That is why such gesture towards Carola can be explained in the following way – people of the Maasai tribe accepted Carola although she was not ready to accept all their customs and traditions at first.
In Maasai culture people do not touch each other, they do not usually hug or cuddle (women cannot touch men in public). In Lemalian’s eyes Carola’s behaviour is inappropriate. However, by shampooing Carola’s hair and allowing her to touch his hands Lemalian is opening up to her and to her way of being with him. He lets her touch his face and kiss his lips even though in his culture this is not done and must seem very strange to him.
3) Personal Appearance and Artifacts are also types of nonverbal communication we use to communicate meaning to others. Both Maasai men and women dress in brightly colored traditional “shukas”, which they wrap loosely around their bodies. Men also dye their hair with red ochre, while the women adorn themselves in beautiful, multi-beaded necklaces and other traditional jewelry. Samburu warriors keep their long hair in braids and dress in more colorful attire than other members of the tribe.
It is interesting to notice that all the Maasai warriors carry wooden sticks in their hands. In Maasai culture, such sticks are called rungus. The rungu is an important emblem of warrior status for young males.
Lemalian’s traditional clothes and weapons define him as a Maasai warrior. In his community they express his status. At the immigration department to be regarded as a person of higher status Lemalian has to wear trousers and a shirt now.
Curiously, however, that after the fight with Carola Lemalian cuts off his hair and puts on trousers and a shirt. By putting on «western clothes» he wants to be the head of the family and he hopes that she will respect him if he looks like a man from her culture.
At the end of the film Carola is wearing red clothing (which is considered a sacred colour in Maasai culture).
4) Proxemics is the study of how our use of space influences the ways we relate with others. Despite the fact the Maasai value collectivism and unity, they do not get physically close to complete strangers or people belonging to another culture. As Carola lies down in a manyatta to sleep, Lemalian comes in, smiles at her and lies down next to her. Carola comes closer and wants to rest her head on his chest, but he pushes her gently away and says good night.
5) Our environment acts as another type of nonverbal communication we use.
The Maasai live in shelters called manyatta which are built from branches and grass. These shelters do not have windows or chimneys so it is dark and smoky inside. Animal skins are laid on the floor and are used for warmth. At first Carola is completely lost because she is not used to such conditions, but eventually she tries to adapt to the culture she lives in.
6) Paralanguage is the term we use to describe vocal qualities such as pitch, volume, inflection, rate of speech and rhythm.
The Maasai, for example, use a number of sounds that have special significance, the most common one being the «eh» sound, which can mean «yes», «I understand». We can hear these sounds from Lemalian’s mother when he introduces Carola to his tribe.
7) Finally, silence has a variety of meanings and is powerful. Moreover, context plays an important role for interpreting the meaning of silence.
When Lemalian hits a tree, while driving a car, Carola is very concerned and angry. She yells at Lemalian, but he does not say a word and gets out of the car. Silence in this case can be interpreted as refusing to engage in communication, his honour as a man is hurt.
Nonverbal communication is considered as an indispensable component of human interaction and it bears close relationship with culture. Each culture has a set of norms regarding the appropriateness of different types of body language and paralinguistic factors.
The comparative research of Kenyan and Swiss culture (based on the movie analysis) has shown that each of them has a set of rules that its members take for granted. Carola is a woman from a «developed» country in which religious, economic and gender issues are not as extreme as they are in Lemalian’s place. The Maasai culture includes female alienation and circumcision, low hygiene policies and quite different cultural contexts, among other aspects that are very difficult for Carola to accept or understand. In this way, one can see how their so different world views affect them both until they just cannot live together. Neither their love, nor Carola’s try to understand the Maasai culture are enough to preserve their family.
- Dolin D. J. & Booth-Butterfield M., 1993. Reach out and touch someone: Analysis of nonverbal comforting responses. Communication Quarterly, 41(4), 383-393.
- Knapp M. L. & Hall J. A., 2002. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Crawfordsville, IN: Thomson Learning.
- Sapir E., 1949. The unconscious patterning of behavior in society. In D. Mandelbaum (Ed.), Selected writing of Edward Sapir in language, culture and personality (pp. 544-559). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.[schema type=»book» name=»NONVERBAL BEHAVIOUR AND NONVERBAL COMMUNICATON: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS (MAASAI VS. SWISS CULTURE)» description=»The aim of the article is to analyze the importance of nonverbal communication in intercultural situations. In order to do that we investigate differences between European (Swiss) and Kenyan (Maasai tribe) cultures relying on such types of nonverbal communication as kinesics, haptics, personal appearance and artifacts, proxemics, environment, paralanguage and silence. The analysis is based on The White Masai movie inspired by the autobiographical novel written by Corinne Hofmann. » author=»Mosyagina Maria Sergeevna, Sergeeva Anastasiia Aleksandrovna» publisher=»БАСАРАНОВИЧ ЕКАТЕРИНА» pubdate=»2017-01-17″ edition=»ЕВРАЗИЙСКИЙ СОЮЗ УЧЕНЫХ_30.10.16_31(2)» ebook=»yes» ]