Beyond Words - Language Blog

Are you Fluent in Body Language?

So, you’ve taken the classes and feel confident speaking the language. You may be eager to put your skills to the test on your trip abroad, but before you try making some new foreign friends, you may need to get familiar with some basic local body language. If not, you could embarrass yourself, ruin a business deal, or even get beat up if you make the wrong gesture.

It’s important to keep in mind that for the most part, communication is non-verbal. Some experts believe that we get more than 70% of the meaning of our interaction with others from something other than words. Personal space, eye contact, body contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures are all parts of culture and language. While this may seem obvious, you would be surprised at how many gestures you use unconsciously that could be misunderstood in another country. The first step to becoming fluent in a foreign body language is unlearning some common body language you use everyday.

The index finger, for example, may work perfectly well as a pointing device in the United States. But in many cultures, it is regarded as insulting or even obscene. Don’t expect a positive reaction when you use your finger to beckon someone from the Middle or Far East, Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, Indonesia or Hong Kong. Use your whole hand with the palm down instead.

Be careful crossing your legs in Thailand, Japan, and the Middle East!
The bottom of the foot is considered the lowest body part physically as well as spiritually. If you expose the sole of your foot (or shoe) you are sending an offensive and disrespectful message to those around you.

When in doubt, don’t use any hand gestures. Unless you are very familiar with the body language of the culture, forget about using the “OK” sign with your fingers or giving the “thumbs-up” sign in a foreign country. You may as well tape an American flag on your forehead. Aside from these being stereotypical American gestures, they usually don’t have a positive meaning in other countries and it’s just not worth the risk.

Only after you subdue the urge to use your own native body language are you ready to start using a new foreign body language. It only takes a day or two of observation to get the basics down. In France, for example, you’ll be doing the kiss-on-the-cheek greeting the day you arrive. Of course there are slight variations and subtleties to learn. Once you get used to the Parisian four-kiss greeting you could be left hanging in the south of France, where the two-kiss greeting is more common. It takes time and experience to acquire this kind of body language knowledge.

In Japan you’ll get used to pointing at your nose when referring to yourself (instead of putting your hand to your chest.) In some parts of Tibet, you’ll learn that people sticking their tongue out at you means “Hello.” You may grow accustomed to the “close talkers” in Egypt. And if you spend any time in Italy, you may become aware that using your hands to communicate is sometimes more effective than knowing Italian words.

We use body language daily, almost instinctively — from calling someone’s attention, to expressing an idea or concept in a business presentation.
Before you travel, it’s important to know which gestures are acceptable and which ones aren’t. If you truly want to be fluent in a foreign language, be aware of the body language as well.

–Above photo courtesy of Ian McIntosh