As contradictory as it may sound, language is not always confined to linguistics. Body language allows us to communicate without words or the complication of grammar, structure, or syntax. Even silence can convey meaning in the right context.
From culture to culture, body language has localized idiosyncrasies that require us to study it like we would any other language. Once you learn to master body language in different countries, your gestures, posture, eye contact, and touch can practically say it all.
Gestures are not universal, and using them as such can lead to confusion, and possibly confrontation when you travel. For example, while a thumbs-up signifies positivity or a “go-ahead” in the U.S., it can be a serious insult in Greece and Australia. You could consider it the equivalent of the middle finger in America.
In Malaysia, it’s frowned upon to point at something or someone with an index finger. You should instead use your thumb. In Italy, their gesture for saying goodbye might look like a beckoning gesture to Americans. In general, fast or exaggerated gesturing is common in the U.S. and Italy, but in Northern Europe, it is considered insincere, or a sign of ignorance. In Japan, gestures are simply considered impolite.
When you’re abroad, your sitting posture can alienate you if you aren’t aware of cultural norms. In North America and many European countries, sitting cross-legged is common. It’s a stance that shows you are comfortable and confident in the situation. But in Asia and the Middle East, crossing your legs and exposing the sole of your shoe while talking to someone is considered extremely offensive.
In the west, when you’re engaging someone in conversation, good eye contact is expected. It shows respect, manners, and attentiveness. If someone keeps looking away, we might see that as a lack of confidence, lack of interest, or a sign that perhaps that person is lying.
In Finland or Japan, eye contact is sought out at the beginning of a conversation and then purposely avoided. In some Asian, African, and Latin American countries, eye contact might be seen as aggressive or confrontational, and thus avoided as a sign of respect.
Some countries have what is called a “non-contact” culture, meaning there is very little physical contact in day-to-day life. Britain, Northern Europe, and Eastern countries are often classified as such. If you grew up in one of these places, you might apologize if you brush up against someone in a crowd. The Middle East, Latin American, and southern Europe celebrate high-contact cultures. They commonly use touch as a way of communicating and interacting with other people.
Ironically, silence can speak volumes. Depending on where you are in the world, silence can be seen as an issue to be fixed, or as a positive behaviour. Western cultures, specifically the U.S. and UK, see silence as awkward, uncomfortable, or a sign of disinterest. In these cultures, silence is something to be avoided.
Other cultures view constant noise and conversation as arrogant, ignorant, or just plain rude. In their minds, silence displays contemplation. In China, silence shows agreement, which may sound odd to Americans who would receive silence as quite the opposite.
These are just some of the intricacies of body language. It’s as vast and complicated as any other language, and best mastered through years of practice. To start your journey, check out more fun topics on the ISI blog!