Did you hear the one about the Mediterranean who was trying to have a conversation with someone from one of the Nordic countries? The Mediterranean chased the Nord all the way down the hall trying to get close enough to chat.
And so it goes with body language. Every culture on the planet has its own particular manner of expressing themselves beyond the words they say. And if studies on the subject are accurate, over half to at least three quarters of what people say is expressed through body language. Thus, knowing non-verbal cues is essential for better understanding people from different countries.
When Meeting & Greeting…
… take personal space into account.
Needless to say, different countries have a different understanding of spatial proximity. Maybe it is due to space within the land itself, but North Americans and Scandinavians stand at least an arm’s distance away when conversing. Likewise, they’d prefer little contact when standing in line. The British are quite similar. On the other hand, Mediterraneans and South Americans like to be a bit closer and add some physical contact such as touching the other person’s shoulder while talking. They don’t mind that physical contact when queuing, either. After that, it seems that the more crowded and chaotic the place – the Arab world, Africa, Asia – the more likely it is that physical contact between people will increase, be it when conversing or waiting in line, though it could be said that the concept of a queue does not exist in these places.
Personal contact preferences extend to greetings, as well. When greeting people, North Americans shake hands and might even throw in a big ‘ole bear hug. Scandinavians stop at the hand shake. Mediterraneans and South Americans like to cheek kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss (who knows when to stop). Africans and people from the Middle East are known to touch their heart before shaking hands. Apparently, the Japanese don’t like to be touched at all, so when greeting someone there, simply bow. Keep in mind, the deeper the bow the greater the reverence.
Beware; spatial proximity and greetings are just the tip of the body language iceberg.
Once the conversation is on a roll…
… other body parts and gestures come into play.
When it comes to hand gestures, Mediterraneans and Middle Eastern people take the cake. Their arms are flying all over the place when they speak. It is a language all its own and can look like insanity to a Nord or Eastern European. Those cultures are extremely stoic with hand gestures. It might be due to the weather and history.
Asians are equally reserved regarding any sort of gesticulation. That goes for showing emotions on their face, as well. Are they happy? Sad? Angry? Eastern Europeans can be equally off-putting in this regard. At the other end of the spectrum are Mediterraneans, South Americans and people from the Middle East. Their facial expressions are in unison with whatever message is being sent by their hands. It can be quite theatrical. But when it comes to a lone national facial gesture, no one can touch the Americans’ smile. It is over the top; at times disconcerting.
Body language’s last culturally confusing way of communicating is eye contact. Look up? Look down? You can look anywhere but indirectly in the person’s eyes in some parts of Africa or in Asia. That’s considered rude. Yet in North America, intermittent direct eye contact is expected if one if to be taken as an honest, sincere person. But don’t hold the stare too long or it might be considered a gaze. People from the Middle East and Africa tend to be more intense with their eye contact. Go ahead and stare there.
What to do, what to do…
… and in what part of the world?
Interpreting non-verbal clues in another culture is complicated. Thus, be reactive rather than proactive when away from your homeland. See what the others are doing before you make a move. If you’re still unsure, play it safe.
Keep your hands out of your pockets and down by your side. Be sure to make subtle eye contact but not stare or completely avert your eyes. When you shake hands; not too hard, not too soft and never too vigorously. And watch out for the bow. Oh yeah, don’t forget to keep the soles of your feet always facing the ground.
And remember, “When in wherever, do what the people of wherever do”.