Body Language & Culture

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” – Peter Drucker

One look sometimes says it all. Were you ever in a situation where you were “judged” by your facial expressions? Where someone thought you were upset when you were actually hyper-focused? Ever mistaken someone else’s body language for something it wasn’t?
 
It’s probably more common than you think. And, even when you don’t think you’re communicating, you very well may be. Our body language can speak volumes…without, well, explicitly saying anything.
Nonverbal Communication
So often we worry about what and how we’re communicating, but what about nonverbal communications? How do nonverbals translate cross-culturally? Body language can range from the facial expressions we make, to how we greet others, to eye contact, and even crossing our arms.
When we communicate cross-culturally, we should be aware of how our actions could be interpreted. While in one country it may be appropriate to use bold hand movements when explaining something, another culture may frown upon that. Holding close eye contact may be common in one country, but in another it may be seen as too direct. Something as simple as a smile (which may be intended to convey politeness, common ground, or happiness) could be interpreted as shyness or unease elsewhere. Showing your shoe’s sole could be regarded as very rude in some cultures, while it’s such a common thing other cultures don’t think about it at all. Crossing your legs or crossing your arms may convey comfort in one culture, while in another it could signal distance or distrust. Even waving goodbye could signal to someone else how you may be disagreeing (even though you’re simply trying to say bye!).
How do we communicate what we want without (risking) offending others?
1. Research a country. This really applies to travel overall, but the “more you know,” the better off you are. Study customs, language, history, etc., to get a better idea of culture and accepted norms.
2. Ask a well-traveled person for advice. Friends or family can offer firsthand accounts of how body language might affect communications (hopefully by sharing good experiences…though the ‘bad’ instances teach a valuable lesson as well).
3. Examine body language as it translates cross-culturally. What’s acceptable in your country may not be considered appropriate in another.
4. Be aware of your environment. If you notice any hostility, carefully broach the subject and ask the person you’re communicating with, how you can resolve any issues. Maybe things were misinterpreted?
5. Be conscious of your own body language. What we don’t expressly say can have a huge impact on how our communications go. When you meet someone and this person crosses his/her arms, you might interpret that as this person creating a barrier between you. The person, on the other hand, might just be very comfortable in that position and not think more of it.
Your Take
Have you ever misinterpreted someone else’s body language? What does body language say to you? How do you think it translates across cultures? Any funny or scary stories you want to share?

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