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Body Language Across Cultures


10/23/2006 8:29:59 PM


By Sheng Wang

There's a good chance that some of your coworkers, bosses, or employees will come from a different cultural background. Ever feel like you don't really understand what they're saying, even when you're speaking the same language? It might be because you are not fluent in the body language of their native culture. In the book Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace, authors Iris Varner and Linda Beamer give examples of how even the simplest gestures can have different meanings in different countries.

Forms of Greeting

Handshakes:

  • United States and Canada: Firm handshake.

  • France: Soft, quick handshake.

  • Japan: Handshake with arm fully extended, accompanied by a bow.

  • Germany: Firm handshake. Men traditionally accompany the handshake with a slight bow.

  • Middle East: Handshake with the free hand placed on the forearm of the other person.

    Bowing: Many people from Asian cultures bow in greeting. In Japan, people bow with their hands at their sides, and the depth of the bow is related to the level of respect due to the other person. Thais bow with their palms together and fingers outstretched, while people from Cambodia and Laos bow with their hands in front of their chests. Pakistanis use the salaam, and bow with the palm of the right hand on their foreheads.

    Hugging and Kissing: Native Hawaiians hug and exchange breaths in a custom called "aha." Mexicans will usually hug upon greeting (the abrazo). Men in many parts of the world exchange kisses on the cheek, and places where this is a common practice include Cuba, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

    For the Maori of New Zealand, a traditional greeting includes the pressing together the noses (the hongi), and a cry of welcome (the karanga).

    Other Body Language

    Eye Contact: In Western cultures, people make intermittent eye contact while speaking to demonstrate interest and trustworthiness. People in the Middle East use very intense and prolonged eye contact to gauge someone else's intentions, and will move in very close to see the other person's eyes better. However, in Japan direct eye contact is interpreted as an invasion of a person's privacy and an act of rudeness.

    Smiling: North Americans usually smile automatically when greeting others, while people from other cultures may interpret this as insincere. Asian people smile less than Westerners, and in Korea it is considered inappropriate for adults to smile in public. For Koreans, a smile usually indicates embarrassment, and not pleasure.

    Head Shaking: Although usually shaking one's head from side to side is used to indicate "no," even this simple gesture doesn't have a universal meaning! Bulgarians shake their head to indicate agreement, and people from southern India and Pakistan move their head from side to side to express a variety of meanings. Depending on context, this headshake could mean "you're welcome," "goodbye," enjoyment, the equivalent of a shrug, or that the person acknowledges what another person has said.

    Posture: In the Middle East, it is extremely offensive to point the bottom of one's foot in another person's direction – so sitting cross-legged might be a bad idea!

    Personal Space: The amount of personal space North Americans require is about the length of an arm. The French, Latin Americans, and Arabs need less personal space, while Germans and Japanese need more. The size of one's personal space may also be influenced by social status, gender, age, and other factors.

    General Guidelines

  • Try to interpret the other person's cues as they intended. A man from an Arabic background is being sincere, not threatening, when he looks at you intently and speaks with exaggerated gestures. Conversely, a Japanese woman is showing polite respect, not coldness, when she avoids eye contact and maintains her distance.

  • Do not make assumptions! Ask when you don't understand something, and you'll avoid misunderstandings and embarrassment.

  • "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." While living and working in a foreign country, do your best to learn the local customs and non-verbal cues. This demonstrates your respect for the local culture, and will help you communicate more effectively with others.

  • And remember: Individual members of any group can have unique ways of expressing themselves, so don't assume that everyone from a certain cultural group will use the same body language. Also remember that those who are well-traveled or who are more familiar with North American norms may only use body language that is traditional to their culture when among members of their own cultural group.

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