Body language makes up the largest part of our non-verbal communication – eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions can convey powerful messages. As William Shakespeare said in Troilus and Cressida – ‘There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip’.
However, there are substantial cultural differences in how people use body language to communicate. Sometimes it is very obvious, many times very subtle.
Whether in a culturally diverse company or visiting emerging markets, understanding what people mean through their body language can be a challenge.
Greetings with a handshake
Even the simple handshake can vary from culture to culture. A handshake is widely accepted as the norm, however you’ll need to vary the firmness depending on the location.
Western culture typically perceives a strong handshake as authoritative and confident, whereas many parts of the Far East perceive a strong handshake as aggressive, and usually bow instead.
In parts of Northern Europe, a quick, firm handshake is the norm. In parts of Southern Europe, Central and South America, a handshake is longer and warmer, with the left hand usually touching the clasped hands or elbow.
Beware that in Turkey, a firm handshake is considered rude and aggressive. In certain African countries, a limp handshake is the standard (Guide to African handshakes). Men in Islamic countries never shake the hands of women outside the family.
Many facial expressions appear to be universal and recognised all over the globe.
Research carried out by the Paul Ekman Group, an American Psychologist, showed that over 90% of common facial expressions were identified by people in very different cultures. Over 10,000 facial expressions were created for the study and shown to different western cultures and isolated, pre-literate African groups.
In general, there are seven different facial expressions which correspond to distinct universal facial emotions:
- Happiness – Raising and lowering of mouth corners, cheeks raised, and muscles around the eyes are tightened.
- Sadness – lowering of mouth corners and raising inner portion of brows.
- Surprise – Arching of eyebrows, eyelids pulled up and sclera exposed, mouth open.
- Fear – Brows arched and pulled together, eyes wide open, mouth slightly open.
- Disgust – Eyebrows lowered, upper lip raised, nose wrinkled, cheeks raised.
- Anger – Brows lowered, eyes bulging, lips pressed firmly.
We use gestures as a way to emphasize points and illustrate what we are saying.
Hand gestures can mean very different things in different cultures; the ‘OK’ sign in Greece, Spain or Brazil means you are calling someone an a**hole. In Turkey, it’s meant to be an insult towards gay people.
A thumbs up in America and European cultures is an indicator of a job well done, however in Greece or the Middle East, it can mean ‘up yours’
Curling the index finger with the palm facing up is a common gesture that people in United States and parts of Europe use to beckon someone to come closer.
However, it is considered rude in China, East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and many other parts of the world. It’s also considered extremely impolite to use this gesture with people. It is used only to beckon dogs in many Asian countries – and using it in the Philippines can get you arrested.
On Inauguration Day 2005, President George W. Bush raised his fist, with the index and little finger extended, in the shape of the Texas Longhorn football team logo. Newspapers around the world expressed their astonishment at the use of such a gesture. In many Mediterranean and Latin countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, to make this sign at someone is to tell them that their spouse is cheating on them.
In most western countries, eye contact is a sign of confidence and attentiveness. We tend to assume that if someone looks away while we are talking to them, they’re disinterested and looking for someone else to talk to.
In many Middle Eastern countries, same-gender eye contact tends to be more sustained and intense than the western standard. In some of these countries, eye contact beyond a brief glance between the sexes is deemed inappropriate.
In many Asian, African, and Latin American countries, however, this unbroken eye contact would be considered aggressive and confrontational. These cultures tend to be quite conscious of hierarchy, and avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect for bosses and elders.
In these parts of the world, children won’t look at an adult who is speaking to them, and nor will employees to their bosses.
Eye contact variation by culture:
- Used a lot in regions such as the Middle East, Mediterranean cultures, Europeans, and Latin Americans.
- Used often in much of Northern Europe and North America
- Used somewhat carefully in cultures in Africa, Middle East, Korea and Thailand
- Used carefully in most of the Far East
Learn how to use body language to improve your professional relationships. Practice what you learn in virtual reality exercises. Learn more about the body language course.
Moving your head
In some parts of India, people tilt their head from side to side to confirm something and demonstrate that they are actively listening. The side-to-side head movement originates from British occupation, as the occupied Indian people were afraid to ever gesture ‘no’ to soldiers but wanted to show signs of understanding.
A video decoding Indian headshakes went viral, attracting over a million hits in a week.
Northern Europe and the Far East as classed as non-contact cultures. There is very little physical contact beyond a handshake with people we don’t know well. Even accidentally brushing someone’s arm on the street warrants an apology.
An innocent hug made headlines around the world in 2009 when America’s first lady, Michelle Obama, broke royal protocol on a visit to Britain by hugging the Queen.
By comparison, in the high-contact cultures of the Middle East, Latin America, and southern Europe, physical touch is a big part of socialising.
In much of the Arab world, men hold hands and kiss each other in greeting, but would never do the same with a woman.
In Thailand and Laos, it is taboo to touch anyone’s head, even children. In South Korea, elders can touch younger people with force when trying to get through a crowd, but younger people can’t do the same.
Physical contact variation by culture:
- High Contact cultures tend to stand close when speaking and make physical contact more often. Latin America, Southern Europe, and most Middle Eastern nations are examples.
- Medium Contact cultures stand quite close when speaking and will touch on occasion. Such cultures include Northern Europe and North America.
- Low Contact cultures stand at a greater distance and generally avoid physical contact. The Far East is an example.
These rules are usually quite complex. They may differ depending on the age, gender, ethnicity, profession, and status of the people involved.
Be aware of your posture when you attend meetings or are dining. Sitting cross-legged is seen as disrespectful in Japan, especially in the presence of someone older or more respected than you.
Showing the soles of your shoes or feet can offend people in parts of the Middle East and India. That is why throwing shoes at someone is a form of protest and an insult in many parts of the world – as former U.S. President George W. Bush famously discovered on a visit to Iraq in 2008.
Though it can feel like a void in communication, silence can be very meaningful in different cultural contexts. Western cultures, especially North America and the UK, tend to view silence as problematic. In our interactions at work, school, or with friends, silence is uncomfortable. It is often perceived as a sign of inattentiveness or disinterest.
In other cultures, however, silence is not viewed as a negative circumstance. In China, silence can be used to show agreement and receptiveness. In many aboriginal cultures, a question will be answered only after a period of contemplative silence. In Japan, silence from women can be considered an expression of femininity.
In many cultures, what is acceptable for a man may not be acceptable for a woman. The most obvious example is the issue of covering your head in some Muslim countries but also, within religions such as Islam and Hinduism, shaking a woman’s hand can be considered offensive.
Modern transportation and an increase in expendable income allow us to visit a huge range of cultures. We’ve discussed how gestures, eye contact, greetings, and physical contact can have very different meanings in different countries and cultures so you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the country’s etiquette, values, and styles of communication before you visit.
Being able to understand cultural differences will improve your working relationships and potentially make you more successful in an increasingly globalized, multi-cultural working world.