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09 October 2023
Body language in intercultural communication. Hands holding a flower.

Beyond Words: How Body Language Shapes Cross-Cultural Understanding

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt misunderstood or had difficulty understanding someone from another culture? How their words may have been completely different from what their body language was portraying?

 

Non-verbal communication is an important part of intercultural communication. It involves the use of unspoken cues to express ourselves. So, let's delve into the realm of body language in intercultural communication and discover how it can impact our interactions!

 

What Is Body Language?

 

First things first, what exactly is body language? It's the language we communicate through our gestures, facial expressions, posture, and even the way we use our personal space. It's a powerful tool that gives insight into our thoughts, emotions and cultural context, sometimes even more than the words we speak.

 

Now, imagine you're in a room full of people from different countries. You may notice that body language varies from culture to culture. In Western cultures, direct eye contact is considered respectful and attentive. However, in Asian cultures,  eye contact can be seen as rude or aggressive.

 

Likewise, hand gestures that seem perfectly normal in your culture may mean something completely different in another culture. For example, the hand gesture of thumbs up carries different meanings across cultures.

 

In North America and most European countries, the thumbs-up gesture is generally seen as a positive symbol. It signifies approval, agreement, or encouragement. It is commonly used to express satisfaction with a job well done or to indicate "all is good."

 

However, it is essential to be aware that this common gesture does not hold the same meaning universally. In some cultures, such as the Middle East and some African countries, the thumbs-up gesture is considered offensive and vulgar. It is equivalent to giving a middle finger in Western cultures and is seen as a derogatory or obscene gesture.

 

Moreover, in certain Asian cultures, like Japan, the thumbs-up gesture does not hold a strong positive connotation. It is commonly associated with approval for mediocrity, rather than excellence.

 

These subtle differences in body language can have a profound impact on how we understand and connect with each other.

 

Hand gesture of thumbs up

 

Culture's Influence on Non-Verbal Communication

 

It's important to recognize that body language is deeply intertwined with cultural norms and values. Cultures shape our interpersonal communication, understanding of personal space, acceptable physical touch, and appropriate display of emotions.

 

For example, in Latin America, maintaining a close physical distance during a conversation is considered normal, while in Northern Europe, it may be viewed as invading personal space. The way a person communicates through physical contact plays a huge role in cross-cultural communication.

 

You can read more about touch in different cultures in this blog post.

 

Non-verbal cues complement verbal messages and provide additional layers of meaning. While words convey the explicit message, non-verbal cues convey the underlying emotions, attitudes, and intentions, the implicit message.

 

In high-context cultures, individuals may express their disagreement in indirect ways rather than speaking out explicitly. For example, one might notice subtle gestures such as lowering their head or crossing their arms that convey their dissent.

 

In Asia, silence during negotiations usually indicates disagreement. However, in Finland, silence is completely normal and often indicates that the other person is processing the information.

 

How to Adapt to Different Cues?

 

Misinterpretations and misunderstandings can arise when we fail to recognize the impact of cultural background on body language. Imagine a situation where you offer your hand for a handshake in a culture where firm handshakes are not common or where physical contact between unrelated people is avoided.

 

Your genuine gesture could end up making the other person uncomfortable or creating a sense of confusion.

 

For example, in Arab cultures, you only shake your hand on your the right hand. Not understanding cultural differences and non-verbal cues can make communication less effective and cause confusion.

 

The good news is that we can bridge the gap and improve intercultural communication by understanding and adapting to different non-verbal behaviour.

So, how can we do that? Let's explore a few strategies.

 

Handshake is common is Western cultures

 

Gain Knowledge of Cultural Practises

 

First, we need to educate ourselves about body language norms and customs of different cultures. By gaining knowledge of cultural practices and non-verbal language barriers, we can better prepare ourselves to navigate through intercultural interactions and avoid signs of disrespect.

 

Knowing the distinctions between high-context and low-context cultures will assist you in adjusting your communication style to align with your non-verbal language. You can read more about the indirect and direct communication styles on this blog post.

 

To broaden our understanding and improve communication, you can read books, attend workshops, and interact with people from different cultures.

 

Observe with Open Mindset

 

Next, it's essential to approach intercultural communication with an open mindset and a willingness to learn. Understanding the culture of the people we interact with helps us adjust our body language and reduce mixed messages. Observation and adaptation are key components of effective communication.

 

Pay attention to the body language cues and try to mirror them when interacting with someone from a different culture. This can help create a sense of rapport and make the other person feel more comfortable. We don't need to copy every gesture, but matching our non-verbal messages with the other person can improve our connection and overcome non-verbal barriers.

 

Engage and Learn from One Another

 

Lastly, communication is a two-way street. If you find yourself in a situation where there is a potential misunderstanding due to non-verbal communication differences, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.

 

Engage in open and respectful conversations to gain insights into the cultural nuances at play. This willingness to engage and learn from one another can lead to stronger intercultural understanding and communication.

 

In conclusion, understanding and adapting to different body language cues is crucial for effective intercultural communication. By recognizing the significance of body language, we can navigate through cultural differences and foster better understanding and rapport.

 

Let's work towards a world where intercultural communication is improved by our openness to listen, adapt, and connect, instead of being limited by body language barriers.

 

If you want to learn more about intercultural communication, take a look my premium coaching program for leaders and expats. 

Tanja is a Certified Intercultural Communication Coach and an expert on Work Style Analysis (WSA). With a Master's Degree in Business Administration, specializing in Leadership and People Management, she helps companies and assists leaders in comprehending cultural dimensions and leveraging existing cultural differences to create powerful organizational strengths.

About the Author

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