Nonverbal Communication in the Russian Culture


Your acquaintance with a new langiage should be made gradually. Berofe you start learning its vocabulary, you might want to pay some attention to an easier way of communication – by nonverbal means. Thiese are actions that permit to communicate a certain message to your partner without using the words themselves [1]. Nonverbal means of communication include gestures, facial expressions and even some sounds that are not, however, considered to be words. Thus, one can carry out a simple communication act without uttering a single word. This is what they call a shortcut.

Practically every language has its own nonverbal means of communication. Nevertheless, this resource is not evenly distributed. It is commom knowledge that Italians have a developped body language that they use very frequently [2]. The same cannot be said about the Finnish people whose kinesics and the speech itself are much more moderate [3]. This difference is often explained by a so-called "southern temper" meaning that people from countries with warmer climat are more impulsive and opened for communication. It seams to be the most popular theory so far.

Weather conditions may be a decent explanation to the origins of body language. In fact, in tropical and equatorial areas people will use gestures more willingly, being free from the burden of heavy winter clothes. And the partner's facial expression will be more visible for the same reason. But there is also a contradiction: communication through gestures would be a lot of help in cold weather – one would not need to open their mouth and inhale overchilled air. Then why is body language more spread in southern countries? One can only suggest that a severe climat reduces visibility. During a blizzard or a polar night no gesture will help.

To be true, northern people never discarded nonverbal means of communication – their advantages are obvious. All they did was to develop a code of their own, different from facial and bodily expressions. Let us study this phenomenon by the example of the Russian language.

Body language of Russians, some slight differences notwithstanding, has a lot in common with the gesture vocabulary of other European cultures. The mouvements for beckoning/dismissal, encouragement/reproach, greeting while meeting and leave-taking are generally the same. There are even some borrowed gestures, like demonstration of the middle finger [4] or the "OK" sign [5]. Russians' ingenuity lies elsewhere.

So, you are too cold to open your mouth? Do you have to? That is why sometimes during conversations Russians produce nasal sounds (humming noises) of different tone while keeping their mouths shut. The tonal variety [6] of these sounds is almost as complex as Mandarin Chinese. Let us see the following examples:

Fig. 1. “Yes”

This is a diagram of a nasal acoustic signal. It is about 1 second long during which the falling tone [7] passes to the rising tone [7], like in a question. This signal, curiously enogh, stands for affirmation. It can be understood as “Yes”, “That's right”, “Certainly”. It also resembles a Russian word «ага» that stands for an informal “Yep”.

Fig. 2. “No”

This signal is equal in length to the previous one, but its tone is in the absolute counterphase: the rising tone becomes the falling tone. The signal is used to express denial, stands for “No” or “No way”. Depending on the context it also means absence of something since Russians use the word «нет» (No) when they lack things: «У меня нет денег» = “I have no money”.

Fig. 3. “What?”

Our third example is an interrogative signal. As you can see from the diagram it is half as short as the previous two sounds. It contains only the rising tone which is typical for the interrogative intonation. It may mean “What?”, “Sorry?”, “Can you repeat please?” and even “What do you mean?”. The signal is also used to offer the partner something of the served food in informal situations: "Will you [ eat this]?"


Fig. 4 “There”

The next signal is based on the falling tone which suggests an affirmative message. It is used to indicate objects, persons or locations: “Here [it is]”, “There [he is]”, “[Put it] there”. It can be used as an invitation to sit down: [Sit] here”. It is often combined with a gesture of indication. It also may mean “I see”, “Fine” used as an answer cue on something the partner said.


Fig. 5 “Hmm”

This signal is used as a remark in a conversation: “Fancy that”, “What do you know...”. The signal is as short as the previous one, but with no tone drop. Here we should make a note that Russians use two kinds of this signal:

а) the low and level tone that stands for a neutral remark,

b) the high and level tone that stands for derision: “Whatever”, “Who cares?”, “Humbug!”.

Fig. 6 “Long hmm”

It is the longest humming sound, about 3 times as long as the “Yes” or “No” sounds. It is pronounced with the level and low tone and stands for “Let me think”. The extended length of the signal is meant to ask for some “overtime” from your partner: “I'm impressed and don't know what to think. Let me dwell on it for a while”. This signal can be recognized by some European peoples, being rather widespread and even used in fiction literature [8, 9]. It is also called “hem” and means dout.

In Russian the signals № 1,  № 4, № 5 and № 6 are often used to support a conversation instead of more elaborated phrases. The reason is that it is considered impolite to interrupt your partner's speech with long cues. An interlocutor that keeps exclaiming: “Oh, It's so true!” will be suspected of being insincere or of not paying attention. According to the logic of Russians, a person speaking with elaborate phrases while somebody else's speech, values his or her own words more than those of their partner. On the contrary, if you are all ears, you will not care for the thoughts or cues of your own. So, instead of feigning the “active listener”, Russians use nasal sounds in conversations. They are often accompanied with nods that mark the key-words of the partner's speech. This behavior is shared by the Japanese people [10].

The present classification comes as a result of my personal observations and, as far as I can judge, claims a certain originality. The fact that these signals are rare in cultures of other European peoples and can be understood by foreigners only with a difficulty, speaks for the benefit of a unique nature of this phenomenon. Besides, it is remarkable that Russian people developed a communication code based on nasal sounds which are not typical for that language, unlike, say, for French [11].

It should also be noted that in the modern Russian dominating sounds are consonants; they are the main criterion of words recognition. This feature embraces most of European languages and sets them off against the East Asia tongues where the vowel sound and its tonal variations are more important [7]. However, the present nonverbal system puts in the highlight the vowel sound and its tone. That will not surprise us, however, if we remember that Russian culture always combined occidental and oriental features thanks to its geographical position. During the epoch of Kievan Rus' and up to the 16th century there was a custom among Russians to bow when greeting someone, like the modern Japanese do. The bow was much lower though, reaching almost halfway below the waistline.

Where can you use the nasal sounds without embarrassing yourself? It should be kept in mind that the use of these signals is strictly limited by the context of informal conversation. The terms of proxemics will help to define the field more accurately, in particular, the intimate space and the personal space of the speaker that extend within the radius of 0,5 m and 1,2 m correspondingly [12]. Nasal sounds are not very loud, a person at the other end of the room will not hear you. Thus, only relatives, friends and other people close to the speaker, that have access to his or her personal and intimate spaces, will have the honor to be communicated with by the nasal sounds. Applying these signals to short acquaintances is considered to be impolite and is regarded as a familiarity.

Study the use of the nasal signals in motion-picture art:

а) from 34:00 to 34:30 minutes in public transport where people are forced to invade each other's personal space

During the indicated period these signals are demonstrated in chronological order:

  1. the signal of affirmation (№ 1),

  2. the signal of indication (№ 4), accompanied by the gesture of indication

During the episode where the guy is following the girl everywhere like a shadow, from 30:32 to 40:00, the signal of affirmation (№ 1) is demonstrated several times.

b) from 12:00 to 13:05 minutes, a telephone conversation ends with the signal of derision (№ 5 b) from the passive female listener

c) minute 2:50, enemies talking (№ 6)

In a conversation between two rivals an intentional use of a nasal signal is equal to invading the intimate space of the criminal during the interrogation in order to break down his resistance [13]. The enemy makes it seem that he is “closer” that he appears (intimidation tactics).

The last video testifies that nasal sounds used as nonverbal signals are present in other cultures besides the Russian one. Though it should be said that their use is more systematic among Russians.

Movies provide the researcher with rather trustworthy material as they can picture an act of communication in the most complete way. The use of nasal sounds is intuitive, like the application of articles in speech. Therefore, if a movie or an animated cartoon contains a nasal sound used as a communication signal, that means that the nation who produced the film also uses this signal. Otherwise it wouldn't be demonstrated so widely for the fear of misunderstanding. Japanese movies and cartoons in particular often contain such humming sounds used as answer cues. They are mostly the signals of the 1st and the 4th kind (see above). The reason? Apart from similar climatic conditions – Japan has areas with the great asperity of the climate in winter – there are also historical causes to it. Japan preserved feudal customs for an exceptionally long time, along with its caste system. Such a society saw the obedience of the vassal to his lord as the major virtue. One of the ways to show obedience was being taciturn since the liegeman could talk only with a permission from his superiors.

And now let us draw a conclusion to our observations: there is a clear evidence of a specific nonverbal communication system present in Russian. It is based on nasal sounds of different tone, though neither nasal sounds, nor tones are typical for the modern Russian language. We can distinguish 7 basic signals and even their application field which is informal conversation, everyday life and routine. The sounds can be used to express the main ideas of consent, denial, interrogation, indication; they express some emotions, as derision, surprise, dout or puzzlement, and are good enough to count as participation in the conversation.

To those who never paid attention to this phenomenon before, we can give a piece of advice: nasal sounds will be very apropos while a visit to a dentist. Imagine yourself in the patient chair with your mouth open and full of strange metallic tools. An here's the doctor asking you if cold water hurts you. That is when the ability to speak through the nose comes in handy!

References :

  1. Wikipedia: Nonverbal Communication
  2. Illustrated Guide to Italian Hand Gestures
  3. Finnish Customs and Manners
  4. Wikipedia: The Finger
  5. Wikipedia: OK Gesture
  6. Wikipedia: Tone in Linguistics
  7. Wikipedia: Pitch Accent
  8. J. K Rowling. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  9. J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  10. Japanese Body Language and Gestures Explained
  11. Popova I. N. Kazakova Z. A. Kovalchyuk G. M. French Language. Moscow: Nestor Academic Publishers, 2004.
  12. Wikipedia: Proxemics
  13. Pease, Allan. Body Language - p. 22