Cultural Differences in Non-Verbal Communication

Cultural Differences in Non-Verbal Communication

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When you don't speak the language, you can fall back on body language, right?

No. And even if you understand the language, you should familiarize yourself with the following, or you might end up telling your boss "to stick it up their ass," mistakingly inform someone they're getting cheated on, or even end up in prison.

Keep in mind that a country's culture is fluid, and the gestures vary depending on the subculture, socioeconomic status, region, and era. Whereas the following may be true for many people in that country, it might not be accurate for others. Remembering the context, regardless of gesture or body expression, is essential.

Easily confused gestures

Thumbs up. Whereas many international organizations and people around the world recognize the emoji as "good job" or okay, the gesture can also mean "Up yours, asshole" in many Western African and Middle Eastern cultures. And if you're hitchhiking, you should avoid using thumbs up in West Africa, Russia, Iran, Greece and Sardinia, but I've read and heard some mixed info here.

The horn fingers. This symbol can be a sign of approval or "rock on" in many metal and hard rock cultures around the world. In Northern Europe and North America, it's also common in popular culture. But in many Mediterranean and Latin countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Italy and Portugal, to make this "horn" sign at someone is to tell them that their partner is cheating on them. For example, in Spain, we say "te puso los cuernos," which directly translates "to put you the horns" but means "you're getting cheated on." However, I've noticed most people in Spain understand the symbol as "rock on."

The ring gesture. Influence from the United States popularized this gesture as "okay," but in Japan, it means money, and in Brazil, it means "you're an asshole." From all the scholarly articles I read and various people I spoke to, there is no clear consensus, but many agree that in Southern European countries (aside from Spain and Portugal), this symbol means you're "a zero" or a loser.

The V. The V with the palm facing outward is widely accepted as the peace sign or two, as in "two more beers." Some older generations might use it for victory. However, when the palm faces inwards, it's an offensive insult in England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The insult can mean "up yours" or "you cuckold," depending on who you talk to. And, of course, the V can refer to the vagina or spreading legs.

Pointing. Pointing for directions and inanimate objects is usually accepted worldwide, but you can play it safe by using an open hand in the Middle East and Asia. In the USA, pointing at a person is sometimes affectionate, as in "Yeah, you got it, bruh!" but in many parts of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, you should not point at people.

The L. The L for loser was popularized in the 1990s by the 1994 movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the 1999 Smash Mouth song "All Star." However, in China, it means the number eight, but it is more likely to be titled like this:

So, if a Chinese salesperson does this, they're telling you the cost, not that they will shoot you.

Crossed fingers. In many Christian countries, fingers crossed means protection and good luck, but in Vietnam, it's rude to refer to a vagina.

The beckoning gesture. The gesture is accepted in many Western cultures as a way of telling someone to "come here." Even if you use an open hand, the beckoning gesture is incredibly rude in places such as East Asia and Slovakia. You can even get arrested for this gesture in the Phillippines.

Looking at your watch. It may be a subtle way of showing someone you gotta go (or that you're bored outta your skull), but in many Arabic cultures, it would be rude. You must let the conversation run its natural course. You'll also want to read my article, The Quick Guide for Global Business, to learn more about how punctuality and flexibility vary.

Nodding/Shaking Head. Nodding the head means "yes" and shaking the head means "no" in many parts of the world, but this is reversed in Greece and Bulgaria, where nodding the head up and down means "no" and shaking/tilting the head either side means "yes."

In India, it gets even more complicated with the head wobble. It can mean anything from "good" to "I understand" to "no." Saying "no" is impolite so a slight waddle can be a "vague yes." A brief wobble often means understanding, a quick wobble signifies agreement, and a slow wobble can signify friendship. But like with all gestures and communication in high-context cultures, this should not be attempted by foreigners until they are familiar with the subtleties in the culture. You'll also want to read my article, The Quick Guide for Global Business, to learn more about high-context, low-context, homogenous, and heterogenous cultures.

Crossed arms. Crossed arms can express various feelings within a single culture – anger, tension, disappointment, cold, and so on. However, in Finland, it can also be a sign of arrogance. But no matter the culture, crossing your arms without clear facial cues can lead to misunderstandings.

Other gestures of which to be aware

In Russia (and some prior Soviet Union countries), it's considered bad luck to shake hands over a threshold (In a doorway, for example). This also goes for kissing someone, which I learned the hard way.

In Brazil, smacking the back of your hand means "I don't care." In India, showing your feet is very rude. In France, snapping your fingers or slapping an open palm over a closed fist is vulgar and can mean you want to fight someone. Tapping under your eye can also mean you don't believe someone. In Thailand, a three-finger salute is a sign of resistance. In India and Pakistan, flicking your top teeth with your thumb tells someone to essentially "screw off." In Italy, tucking one hand under your chin and then brushing/flicking it out aggressively towards a person is a way of saying "fuck off." In Greece, putting your hand out with an open palm is a serious sign of disrespect. In Turkey, placing your thumb between your index and middle finger is a way to deny a request aggressively. But not all mistaken gestures will end with a fist in your face.

Some gestures will confuse people more than anger them. In Austria, shaking both fists in front of your torso is a way of wishing someone good luck. In Nepal, prayer hands are a polite way of saying hello. In Italy, poking your cheek signifies that you're enjoying the food.

Of course, there are hundreds of other culture-specific examples (especially when examining sub-cultures, social movements, and sports), but I selected some of the most common gestures that could get you into trouble. Fortunately, we're humans. We have enough in common to understand each other, no matter our cultural differences – well, kind of.

Facial Expressions

In 1971, Ekman and Fiesen conducted a study with American, Brazilian, Chilean, Argentinian, and Japanese participants to find which emotions are universal. The problem is that these countries have all been in contact with WEIRD countries (Wester, Education, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), so these expressions might be learned rather than something we're born with for survival. However, when they conducted a study with the Fore, a culture without Western contact in the inner highlands of New Guinea, they found that they also showed the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, and fear.

There is also some evidence that how we express contempt, shame, embarrassment, interest, and pride is universal and innate. For example, congenitally blind judo wrestlers worldwide express pride with an erected posture, head tilted back, and arms extended away from the body or held akimbo. However, even if we are born with certain facial expressions to help us show emotion and survive, language causes us to perceive emotions differently.

If you want to learn about culturally-specific words and how they affect emotional understanding and communication, please consider becoming a paid member. I post two new articles a month and discuss many of these findings with people from around the world on my podcast.

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