Communication – The Total Impact of Your Message

If we don't understand another culture’s nonverbal communication, we may “read” another person’s messages incorrectly. Some forms of nonverbal communication are the same and universal, but others have different meanings, or no meaning, in another culture. This exercise is an important vehicle in any peer conflict mediation program to help students embrace the concept of being culturally responsive and culturally sensitive.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to: 

  • identify the difference between verbal and nonverbal behaviors. 
  • give examples of the ways we communicate differently based on our cultural and/or social upbringings. 
  • understand the many ways miscommunication can occur.
Essential Questions
  • What influences the way people communicate with each other? 
  • What can happen if we don't understand the nonverbal communication from another culture?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • How well people communicate with others is shaped by many factors, including verbal and nonverbal behaviors. 
    • If we don't understand the nonverbal communication from another culture, we may “read” another person incorrectly, which can lead to miscommunication.
  • Chart paper, blackboard, or whiteboard (and writing utensil) 
  • Pie chart information pre-drawn, as described below in “Step One” of the procedure


  • non-verbal communication [non-vur-buhl  kuh-myoo-ni-key-shun] (noun) "silent" communication, including the use of gestures, postures, position, eye contact, facial expressions and conversational distance. 
  • verbal communication [vur-buhl  kuh-myoo-ni-key-shun] (noun) spoken communication, including the use of words and intonation to convey meaning 
  • miscommunicate [mis-kuh-myoo-ni-keyt] (verb) to communicate unsuccessfully

Suggested Procedure

1. Write the word communication on the board or a piece of chart paper, along with this data (which you may want to draw as a pie chart): 

7% are the words we speak 

38% is our tone, volume, inflection and intonation 

55% is nonverbal  

Ask students what they think the pie chart means. Explain that communication is made up of three elements:  the words we speak, the manner in which we speak them, and the messages we send without words. Ask students: What is verbal and nonverbal communication? (See definitions in the Vocabulary section above.) 

Explain the following: If we don't understand the nonverbal communication of someone from another culture, we can “read” him or her incorrectly. Some forms of nonverbal communication are similar everywhere, but others have different meanings, or no meaning, in other cultures. 

2. Tell students that there are three kinds of nonverbal communication in a multicultural context: 

a. Nonverbal behaviors that exist in all cultures, but which are assigned different meanings from culture to culture 

b. Nonverbal behaviors that exist in some cultures, but which are assigned different meanings within respective cultures 

c. Nonverbal behaviors that have meaning in one culture but no meaning at all in other cultures 

Ask students what smiling, frowning, and the “OK” gesture mean. Then give them the following examples of nonverbal gestures that have the same and different meaning in the United States and other countries: 

  • Smiling: When Americans are happy, we usually smile. Smiling is typically an expression of pleasure. It can show affection and politeness. But it depends on the situation and the relationships. A woman smiling at a police officer doesn't carry the same message as when she smiles at a child. In Indonesian cultures, smiling is also used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment. Thus, Indonesian students who do something wrong at school might smile to cover up their embarrassment. 
  • Frown: When Americans are sad or angry, we frown, scowl or even cry. In Iranian culture, people may express grief openly by mourning out loud. Generally, people in China, Japan and Indonesia are more subdued when they are sad. 
  • The "OK" Gesture (forming a circle with the thumb and index finger): In the United States and in many English-speaking countries, the "OK" gesture can mean that everything's fine. In France, it can mean zero or nothing. In Japan it can mean "money." 

Tell students that these three generalized examples are used to point out that there are many ways to interpret a single nonverbal gesture. 

3.  Have students pair up and act out the following situations by using only body language: 

  • You cannot hear your friend’s voice 
  • You want a child to come to your side 
  • You want to wish your friend good luck from across the room 
  • You don't know the answer to a question someone has asked you 
  • You want to tell someone sitting close to you that class is boring 
  • You want to signal to your friend that the person you are talking to on the phone talks too much 
  • You want to express, “Oh, not again!” 
  • You want to tell your friend that you have just forgotten something 
  • You want to tell your friend to wait a second 
  • You want to tell your friend to slow down 
  • You want to tell your friend that everything is OK 

Discuss differences observed as a whole class. 

4. Explain that there are so many ways to miscommunicate with each other. Then give students these pieces of advice to communicate more effectively: 

  • Suspend judgment. Don't be so quick to judge someone based on what they say or what their nonverbal communication says. 
  • Collect more information from people. Easy statements to get this information might include: “Tell me what you were thinking when you said that.” “I was curious what you were feeling when you said that.” 

Have students think of a time when they upset a friend because of an email or text message. Ask: “Given what you now know about complete communication—verbal and non-verbal—why might emails and instant messenger be less-than-ideal ways to communicate?” 

Common Core State Standards: W.4, W.7, SL.1, SL.4


Extension Activity

Ask students to conduct a social experiment for a week or two by using what they have learned to see if they can improve their communication skills. Have them journal situations where a miscommunication occurred, and note what they did to try to improve communication using the steps they learned above. At the end of the experiment, have them report on their results and what they learned.  

Then ask students to brainstorm ways to spread the word about improving communication within the school. Have them choose one these ideas and put their plan into action.

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