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Cultural Differences in Body Language Essay

Do you know what I am doing? (thumbs up to the side – Hitch hiking). When I do this, most of you would think it means “good job”. But in the middle east, for example in Iran, it’s an insult similar to “the middle finger”. Good evening Madam Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters and guests, tonight let’s look at body language in different cultures. Do you agree that gestures can communicate as effectively as words? I agree. Some might argue, it maybe even more than words. However we must be aware different culture has different body language.

Therefore, in our personal and business lives, careful consideration must be given to whom we are with and where they are from. A question that we might ask is; do we expect other cultures to adapt to our customs and protocol, or are we willing to make an extra effort to learn more about how they prefer to communicate? It wouldn’t be the first time that someone who wasn’t familiar with the communication customs of another country, found themselves in a rather embarrassing situation.

Many years ago, President Richard Nixon arrived in a foreign country. Upon his arrival, he stood at the top of the stairs leading from his aircraft door, and overlooked the welcoming crowd gathered below him. He smiled and proudly raised both hands high in the air, palms facing outward and gave a gesture of his trademark famous “Peace” sign (as he had done many times before while travelling abroad). However the crown immediately began to jeer and hiss at the President, and he found himself on the receiving end of a hostile and rude welcome.

Could you imagine how he felt? The reason was because in the country he was visiting, the two fingered, palms outward “Peace” sign, which was acceptable in North America, was an absolutely offensive gesture to the local people in that African country. This would have been the equivalent of a president from another country visiting New Zealand, and with a smile, “flipped the bird” which in their country might have meant “greetings”. As a member of the audience, how might you react?

In North America, a simple “thumbs up” gesture can mean that things are “great” or a hitchhiking sign which indicates “I need a ride”. However, in Greece, this gesture signifies “up yours” when accompanied with a rapid upward and slower downward motion. The gesture for YES is often thought to be universal, however in India they wobble their heads from side to side to say yes. Correct me if I’m wrong my Indian friends. There are also variations in saying no. In Greece they toss their head up.

In Japan, they wave their hands in front of their nose like ur gesture for stinky. Or, how about the “OK” sign where the index finger and the thumb connect to make an “O” shape and the three remaining fingers point up and slightly flare out. Although acceptable in Western culture to signal that things are “A-OK”, in Russia or Turkey, this gesture can represent a sexual insult. specifically an orifice (that’s as far as I’ll go with that). In China you may see two men walk hand in hand or with an arm around another’s shoulder. This is a sign of friendship. However, the situation is regarded as homosexual in American culture.

In some countries such as France or Italy, it is acceptable to exchange a kiss on one or both cheeks while shaking hands when greeting one another. In other countries such as Japan, this type of behavior is considered impolite as the Japanese are considered to be a “non-touch” society relative to other cultures. The Japanese have a respectful custom to bow to each other. The most senior status person bows the least and the least status person having to bow first and display the deepest bend from the waist. Business cards are exchanged and read first in a complex formality.

This ritual is to determine the seniority, position or rank of everyone in the room first. Then the bowing gesture commences based on the information read. For example, let’s say Tony Cooper is the CEO of Mitsubishi Motors in Japan. I am a small department manager from Fontera…the process is: So as you can see, it is really important to know your audience. If you are traveling to other countries, you need to be aware that some of the most commonly acceptable gestures at home can have a completely different meaning to someone from abroad.

Demonstrating a sound knowledge of the cultural differences in nonverbal communication will get you noticed and others will appreciate that you are both respectful and prepared. Tonight you’ve learnt as least one thing: be careful if you thumb a ride in Greece O Take the time and invest in a little research to become culturally educated. By doing this you will be able to: Save the embarrassment. (i. e. Be careful if you thumb a ride in Greece O) Gain the competitive edge.

A little research can go a long way prior to traveling abroad on business. Surely it helps if you are willing to make an extra effort to learn more about how they prefer to communicate. As the saying goes, “In Rome, do like the Romans do”. Get to know your audience and their customs. Remember in business, it’s about being prepared and establishing rapport quickly. Understanding body language in different culture might be the very thing that tips the scales in your favor and will give you the competitive edge you’re looking for.


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