How to Avoid Cultural Body Language ” Faux Pas”
Traveling to other countries where you don’t speak the language can be fun and challenging. Trying to get directions is not always easy when neither you nor the other person speaks the same language. Sometimes you can end up saying things you don’t mean and cause confusion or laughter. Other times you can outright insult the other person simply because you said a word wrong or used the wrong word in the wrong context. You may end up lost or hungry simply because of communication barriers.
While trying to communicate with words is hard enough, when we add in body language the soup of miscommunication can get even spicier. Gestures which may be acceptable and understood in our own culture may get you into hot water in another. It’s best to learn about these before you arrive at your destination.
Fun Facts about Body Language
80 -90% of the meaning of our message is nonverbal.
Body language is culturally defined. Facial expressions are universal, but the rest really depends on the culture we are in.
The ability to read body language cues is linked to social/emotional intelligence or awareness.
It is exceedingly complex. Context needs to be our guide.
Most of the time, we are unaware of our body language because it happens at an unconscious level.
General Differences Between Cultures
There are some general guidelines to know about when dealing with different cultures. Some cultures are”non-contact” cultures such as Britain, Northern Europe, and the Far East (Asian cultures). Others are “high contact” cultures such as the Middle East, Latin America, and Southern Europe. In these cultures, physical touch is integral to socializing.
If you happen to be of Northern European or Asian ancestry, it may be extremely uncomfortable for you when coming in contact with people from South America, for example, and feel that your physical space is being invaded. Understanding the differences between cultures can help to smooth over these uncomfortable situations and avoid difficulties.
In Spain, Greece, and Arab-speaking countries, there is usually strong eye contact between people. It can be intense and you may feel the need to divert your gaze. However, you need to hold your gaze because, if you don’t, it can be interpreted as disrespect, insecurity or lack of interest, or all three. In Arab-speaking countries, this practice is only applicable to people of the same gender. Strong eye contact between men and women is not acceptable.
Intense eye contact is extremely awkward for people from Finland or Asian countries who grow up with the habit of not meeting the gaze of the person they are speaking to. In the Carribean, children are taught not to look adults in the eye when they are being corrected. In Africa and Latin America, strong eye contact is seen as a sign of aggression or a challenge of authority. In Cuba, avoiding eye contact can be seen as a sign of dishonesty.
Hands and Arms
In Italy hands and words go together and sometimes Italians don’t need even need words because hand gestures say everything. In Northern Europe, Britain and North America, however, hand waving can seem annoying or downright rude. In Japan, hand waving to express yourself is considered very impolite. In Middle Eastern countries, people, like the Italians, are very expressive and tactile; and empathy is an important component of any conversation.
Lefties in Arab countries; The left hand is considered unclean in these countries. You should never eat or greet anyone with your left hand. Above all, do not accept a gift with your left hand as this would be seen as a huge insult.
The hand wave: In America and Canada, this simply means goodbye (and hello), whereas in Europe and Latin America it means “No”. In Italy, a good by wave can be interpreted as “come here”. In Japan, the hand wave is seen as an insult.
Shaking hands: In the West, shaking hands is a normal way to greet someone, to say hello or goodbye, whereas, in Romania, shaking hands takes place only between men every time they meet in a day. They can easily shake hands 20 times a day.
In England, it is very unusual to greet someone with a handshake. In continental Europe (especially Southern Europe), kissing is the normal way to greet someone (don’t be surprised when you go to shake an Italian’s hand and you get bombarded by kissing on each cheek). Bowing lower and lower is the norm in Asian cultures. who try to outdo one another with honor and respect.
In Fiji and Tonga, shaking hands is a long drawn out affair, sometimes lasting the entire conversation. In Morocco, a greeting can last up to 10 minutes alternating between shaking hands and putting your hand to your heart. Don’t be surprised by lengthy handshakes in most African countries.
The “A-Ok” Sign: In France, this sign means “zero” (and worthless – don’t use this sign when the French chef asks how you enjoyed your meal). In Greece, Italy, Brazil, and Russia, this sign is an insult. So, maybe it might be a good idea to leave this signal at home.
The “Come Here” Sign: This sign indicated with a finger is very insulting to people of Asian background and in Asian countries; it is only used for their pets.
Pointing: Pointing is generally considered rude in most countries, but is particularly unaccepted in China, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America.
The “Thumbs Up” Sign: Be careful with this one. It may mean “good job” in Western countries and “one” is some European countries ( France, Italy, Germany), but in other countries such as Greece, India, and Arab-speaking countries, this sign has a sexual connotation (so, don’t go hitchhiking in these countries). In Japan, it means five. In Thailand, it is the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at someone. Good to know!
V is For Victory and Two: When the palm is faced inward, it means two to North Americans and most Europeans (as in 2 please!), but to the British, the Aussies and the New Zealanders, it is quite offensive. An American might think a Brit is giving the victory sign, but the Brit might be telling him something rude. A German bartender might be getting ready to serve a Brit 2 drinks whereas the Brit is, in fact, insulting him.
Crossing the Fingers: This sign means “hoping for good luck” in the West. And, originally it was a secret sign of the cross. But don’t make this sign in Vietnam where it is considered to be an obscene gesture with a sexual connotation.
Head nodding: Nodding of the head is not the same everywhere. In North America and most countries, head nodding up and down signifies agreement. In Bulgaria, Albania, and Turkey, the up and down movement of the head means “No”. In India, a side-to-side movement of the head means “yes.”
If you are in Japan, you may notice that people nod their heads a lot in conversation. Don’t take that to mean the person agrees with you; it simply indicates that they are listening.
Never touch someone on the head in Asian countries; this is inappropriate since Asians believe the head represents the soul and it is very sacred.
Laughter usually indicates someone is happy and a smile is a warm greeting in most places – but not in Russia! Don’t smile or laugh in Russia. If you smile there, it will make you look suspicious and laughter makes them very nervous.
A smile is not always a smile in Japan. Sometimes the smile may mean the person is embarrassed or angry.
Lips: In Latin America, it is considered rude to point with your finger, but not with your lips. In Latin America, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and among Native Americans, lip pointing is common.
Kissing: Kissing on the cheeks is common in European countries and Latin America countries. But in Asian countries, it is not permissible and highly frowned upon even when greeting people.
Spitting: In the West, spitting in public is considered rude. However, in many Asian countries, spitting in public is considered healthy and acceptable. Snorting is also considered quite acceptable in Asian culture, whereas North Americans find it impolite.
Silence: Don’t be surprised by prolonged silence in a conversation or negotiation in Asian countries. It is not necessarily a bad thing and may simply mean the person is thinking about what you said. It could also mean (in a negotiation scenario) that the other person is strategizing. So, it could go either way.
Nose Blowing: Blowing your nose in public is typical and acceptable in the West, but in Japan, it is considered unacceptable. Don’t go into a meeting or negotiation with a cold.
Tapping the Nose: In England, tapping the nose shows confidence, confidential or top secret, whereas, in Italy, it says “watch out”.
Touching one’s ears: Depending on where you are the gesture of touching your ears can be interpreted differently. If you are in Portugal, it is a sign that you like your food. Don’t be so quick to touch your ears in Italy, though as it has a sexual connotation. If a person touches his or her ear in Spain, most likely someone is not paying for their drinks.
Touching with feet: Never touch any part of anyone’s body with your feet in Asia or Arab-speaking countries. Keep your feet solidly on the floor and never point your foot or feet at anyone (ladies – no crossing or swinging your legs). In Asia, when you touch another person by accident (such as accidental kicking), touch the person on the hand and then touch your head. In Arab-speaking countries, feet are generally seen as dirty. Always avoid exposing the soles of your feet as it is considered rude and insulting.
While we, in North America, are much more relaxed in our posture, other countries may see this as disrespectful. In Arab countries and in Asian countries, don’t slouch. Erect posture shows respect.
Travelling can be a fun and educational experience. Knowing a little bit about the countries we are visiting ( the language, culture, and history) can make it even more enjoyable. Many times the most important words in a language are not even words. They are gestures and signs. Being culturally aware of body language can help you to avoid embarrassing and sometimes potentially negative experiences in other countries and help you to have a positive experience..
Have a great day!
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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, pursuing a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. Diana is a Quebec City girl. who loves living life. You can connect with her through Livingandstuff.ca
- February 20, 2020