Cultures differ in the way we use our bodies to communicate.
Sometimes it is very obvious, many times very subtle.
Gestures are a very obvious example of such a difference.
Whether working in a culturally diverse workplace or flying off to emerging markets around the globe, understanding what people mean through their body language can be a challenge.
The complexity of body language is unquestionable in the cross-cultural context.
Good examples of cultural differences in body language are
- the use of eye contact,
- how far apart people should be when they are talking (proxemics)
- and the amount of physical contact that is preferred between people.
Let's explore a few examples to help explain further.
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How Much Eye Contact?
Eye contact can mean very different things around the world.
We'll explore the reasons why later; here are some examples from around the world in terms of how often, or not, eye contact is used.
- Used a lot in regions such as the Middle East, Mediterranean cultures, Europeans and Latin Americans.
- Used often in much of Northern Europe and North America.
- Used somewhat carefully in cultures in Africa, Middle East, and India
- Used carefully in most of the Far East such as in China, S. Korea and Japan.
How Close Should You Stand and What about Contact?
As with eye contact, different cultures have different ideas when it comes to proxemics (distance) and touch or contact.
Again, here are some high-level examples.
- ‘High Contact’ cultures tend to stand close when speaking and make physical contact more often. Latin America, Southern Europe and most Middle Eastern nations are examples.
- ‘Medium Contact’ cultures stand quite close when speaking and will touch on occasion. Such cultures include Northern Europe and North America.
- ‘Low Contact’ cultures stand at a greater distance and generally avoid physical contact. The Far East is an example.
These rules are usually quite complex.
They may differ depending on the age, gender, ethnicity, profession and status of the people involved. They can even depend on things like how much noise there is in the room.
The above are only meant to serve as basic examples of how different cultures tend to approach things like eye contact, etc.
Be Culture Smart - It's Not Always That Simple
Things are never that simple. Understanding body language can get particularly complicated when you mix culture and gender.
Eye contact from someone of the opposite sex, which you might think is a sign of attraction, could in fact be a sign of respect and interest, or even placing a curse on you!
Similarly, if someone avoids shaking your hand when you meet, this could be, for example, to uphold certain traditions which forbid contact between a man and a woman.
We can never know all the rules another person operates by. However, knowing differences exist can help to stop you misinterpreting signals and help you understand why people may act in a certain way.
D.I.Y. Cultural Awareness Training
Why not try it out an excericse we sometimes use in training?
This is a fun little exercise you can do to learn some quick lessons!
1. OK you'll need to firstly find someone who wants to do a bit of D.I.Y cultural awareness training on body language with you.
Grab a colleague or a friend or the stranger on the bus next to you!
2. Face each other and then stand toe-to-toe.
Have a conversation for 10 seconds. About whatever - the weather, dinner or what's on Netflix.
3. Once you're done, reflect and ask yourself, "What happened? Did you make more or less eye contact? Did you break it up? Were you comfortable? or not?"
Eye contact and distance can often greatly affect each other. That’s why when people get into a crowded train and have to stand very close, they usually look up or away rather than at each other's faces - they want to avoid eye contact.
When you were a child did anyone ever say to you “Look me in the eye and tell me the truth”? Many people who are brought up in the UK, Northern Europe and North America are told that that not making eye contact can be a sign of dishonesty.
Yet in cultures in Asia and Southeast Asia, avoiding eye contact can be a way to show respect to others.
How much do you think about these things when you speak to someone? These rules tend to be a part of us and we don’t think about them often. The only time we generally think about them is when we meet someone who acts in a different way to us.
How do you react when someone does not use the same eye contact or physical contact or stands at a different distance to you? People often have an emotional, negative response.
This can all happen at a very unconscious level.
One of the keys to managing non-verbal behaviour is to be aware of your own body language and how it may be seen by others. By being aware of the situation and our own behaviour, we can avoid causing offence without meaning to.
4. Next, both of you look at the illustration below.
Answer each question by thinking about how you communicate when talking with work colleagues.
Try and be as honest with yourself as you can. Read the definitions under each scale and place yourself the number that defines you.
Then show each other what you have scored; any differences? Why? Discuss the reasons you placed yourself where you did.
It's just a bit of fun but get's you thinking and talking!
We hope you have enjoyed our brief guide to cultural differences in body language.
If you want to take a professional course on culture in the workplace, then sign-up for our eLearning course!