Watch Your (Body) Language

Reviewed Apr 15, 2015

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Summary

To avoid offending or confusing someone from another culture, it’s important to be aware of appropriate gestures and body language.

In 1993, President George Bush made a state visit to Australia. As he passed crowds of Australians lined up on the street, he flashed the “V” for victory sign from the backseat of his limousine. Unfortunately, Bush did it backward, with the back of his hand facing the people. The next day, his photo appeared in newspapers across Australia with the headline “President Bush insults Australians.” He was unaware that in Australia, as in England, that particular signal—the reverse “V”—is an obscene gesture. The correct form is to have the palm facing outward.

Gestures and body language have been called “the silent language.” While clarity is important in spoken and written communication, it’s also important when the communication is nonverbal. When you’re living and working outside the United States, it’s important to be aware of the gestures and body language you use. What seems innocuous to you may mean something else to a customer or colleague.

In every culture, there are nuances of behavior. Ignoring them could unwittingly diminish your company’s reputation in the eyes of prospective customers, business partners and employees. To avoid offending or confusing someone from another culture, it’s important to be aware of appropriate gestures and body language.

I’m OK, you’re OK

Roger E. Axtell, author of Gestures: Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, warns managers to be careful when using the “OK” symbol or the thumb’s up sign. In the United States, these signals mean things are good, but in some countries, such as Germany, Russia, Italy, Turkey and Paraguay, the OK gesture is considered offensive. In Brazil, it has a sexual connotation. In France, it signifies “zero” or “worthless.” And in Japan, it’s used as a symbol for money—the fingers creating the round outline of a coin.

In North America, the “thumbs-up” gesture signals that everything is just great, or it can be used to flag down a car while hitchhiking. But be careful where you use it. In Nigeria, it’s considered extremely insulting. In Japan and Germany, the upraised thumb is used when counting: It signifies “5” in Japan, but in Germany, it stands for “1.”

Space invaders

Spatial relationships—how close you stand when speaking to someone—vary from country to country. Anthropologists believe that we all walk around inside “bubbles of personal space.” The size of the bubble represents our personal territory or buffer zone, and we become distinctly uncomfortable when someone invades our bubble. But as we travel around the world or meet people from other cultures, we learn that some bubbles are larger or smaller than others.

People from Latin America or the Middle East tend to stand close together when speaking, practically toe-to-toe. They may even place a hand on the other’s forearm or elbow, or finger the lapel of the other person. North Americans and most Europeans stand at arm’s length. Asians, especially the Japanese, stand even farther apart during ordinary business or social situations.

The success of cross-cultural interactions often depends on silent communication. Being more sensitive, more aware, and more observant can make you a more effective communicator.

Resource

Culture Clash: Managing the Global High-Performance Team by Thomas D. Zweifel. Select Books, 2010.

By Rosalyn Kulick

Summary

To avoid offending or confusing someone from another culture, it’s important to be aware of appropriate gestures and body language.

In 1993, President George Bush made a state visit to Australia. As he passed crowds of Australians lined up on the street, he flashed the “V” for victory sign from the backseat of his limousine. Unfortunately, Bush did it backward, with the back of his hand facing the people. The next day, his photo appeared in newspapers across Australia with the headline “President Bush insults Australians.” He was unaware that in Australia, as in England, that particular signal—the reverse “V”—is an obscene gesture. The correct form is to have the palm facing outward.

Gestures and body language have been called “the silent language.” While clarity is important in spoken and written communication, it’s also important when the communication is nonverbal. When you’re living and working outside the United States, it’s important to be aware of the gestures and body language you use. What seems innocuous to you may mean something else to a customer or colleague.

In every culture, there are nuances of behavior. Ignoring them could unwittingly diminish your company’s reputation in the eyes of prospective customers, business partners and employees. To avoid offending or confusing someone from another culture, it’s important to be aware of appropriate gestures and body language.

I’m OK, you’re OK

Roger E. Axtell, author of Gestures: Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, warns managers to be careful when using the “OK” symbol or the thumb’s up sign. In the United States, these signals mean things are good, but in some countries, such as Germany, Russia, Italy, Turkey and Paraguay, the OK gesture is considered offensive. In Brazil, it has a sexual connotation. In France, it signifies “zero” or “worthless.” And in Japan, it’s used as a symbol for money—the fingers creating the round outline of a coin.

In North America, the “thumbs-up” gesture signals that everything is just great, or it can be used to flag down a car while hitchhiking. But be careful where you use it. In Nigeria, it’s considered extremely insulting. In Japan and Germany, the upraised thumb is used when counting: It signifies “5” in Japan, but in Germany, it stands for “1.”

Space invaders

Spatial relationships—how close you stand when speaking to someone—vary from country to country. Anthropologists believe that we all walk around inside “bubbles of personal space.” The size of the bubble represents our personal territory or buffer zone, and we become distinctly uncomfortable when someone invades our bubble. But as we travel around the world or meet people from other cultures, we learn that some bubbles are larger or smaller than others.

People from Latin America or the Middle East tend to stand close together when speaking, practically toe-to-toe. They may even place a hand on the other’s forearm or elbow, or finger the lapel of the other person. North Americans and most Europeans stand at arm’s length. Asians, especially the Japanese, stand even farther apart during ordinary business or social situations.

The success of cross-cultural interactions often depends on silent communication. Being more sensitive, more aware, and more observant can make you a more effective communicator.

Resource

Culture Clash: Managing the Global High-Performance Team by Thomas D. Zweifel. Select Books, 2010.

By Rosalyn Kulick

Summary

To avoid offending or confusing someone from another culture, it’s important to be aware of appropriate gestures and body language.

In 1993, President George Bush made a state visit to Australia. As he passed crowds of Australians lined up on the street, he flashed the “V” for victory sign from the backseat of his limousine. Unfortunately, Bush did it backward, with the back of his hand facing the people. The next day, his photo appeared in newspapers across Australia with the headline “President Bush insults Australians.” He was unaware that in Australia, as in England, that particular signal—the reverse “V”—is an obscene gesture. The correct form is to have the palm facing outward.

Gestures and body language have been called “the silent language.” While clarity is important in spoken and written communication, it’s also important when the communication is nonverbal. When you’re living and working outside the United States, it’s important to be aware of the gestures and body language you use. What seems innocuous to you may mean something else to a customer or colleague.

In every culture, there are nuances of behavior. Ignoring them could unwittingly diminish your company’s reputation in the eyes of prospective customers, business partners and employees. To avoid offending or confusing someone from another culture, it’s important to be aware of appropriate gestures and body language.

I’m OK, you’re OK

Roger E. Axtell, author of Gestures: Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, warns managers to be careful when using the “OK” symbol or the thumb’s up sign. In the United States, these signals mean things are good, but in some countries, such as Germany, Russia, Italy, Turkey and Paraguay, the OK gesture is considered offensive. In Brazil, it has a sexual connotation. In France, it signifies “zero” or “worthless.” And in Japan, it’s used as a symbol for money—the fingers creating the round outline of a coin.

In North America, the “thumbs-up” gesture signals that everything is just great, or it can be used to flag down a car while hitchhiking. But be careful where you use it. In Nigeria, it’s considered extremely insulting. In Japan and Germany, the upraised thumb is used when counting: It signifies “5” in Japan, but in Germany, it stands for “1.”

Space invaders

Spatial relationships—how close you stand when speaking to someone—vary from country to country. Anthropologists believe that we all walk around inside “bubbles of personal space.” The size of the bubble represents our personal territory or buffer zone, and we become distinctly uncomfortable when someone invades our bubble. But as we travel around the world or meet people from other cultures, we learn that some bubbles are larger or smaller than others.

People from Latin America or the Middle East tend to stand close together when speaking, practically toe-to-toe. They may even place a hand on the other’s forearm or elbow, or finger the lapel of the other person. North Americans and most Europeans stand at arm’s length. Asians, especially the Japanese, stand even farther apart during ordinary business or social situations.

The success of cross-cultural interactions often depends on silent communication. Being more sensitive, more aware, and more observant can make you a more effective communicator.

Resource

Culture Clash: Managing the Global High-Performance Team by Thomas D. Zweifel. Select Books, 2010.

By Rosalyn Kulick

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