Body language across cultures

Published on August 24th, 2021

A large international organization with a significant operation in Ghana, decided that they wanted to appoint a local Ghanaian Director to appeal more to their local clients. They tasked their usual recruitment agency with creating a short list. The account director, Kate, at the agency was horrified when the company rejected all three candidates. In her view, they were all really strong and had excellent profiles. 

She immediately called Francis, the HR director to find out what had happened. Francis said that all three had been weak. They avoided eye contact, had feeble handshakes and just didn’t appear to have the confidence that this high-profile role needed. Kate decided she needed some local advice, and brought in a Ghanaian recruiter, Nora, to help her.

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A cultural lens

Nora immediately recognized the problem. She told Kate, “In Ghana, it is often considered aggressive and confrontational to make eye contact with someone. When you are in a position of inferior power, such as a job interview, it is appropriate to show deference. Similarly, a strong handshake might be seen as trying to dominate the other person.”

Both Kate and Francis had been taught that eye contact is essential to demonstrate trust and confidence and that a firm handshake shows you are comfortable in the situation and want to find agreement. Relying on their own cultural experience led them to dismiss three excellent candidates. Francis reinterviewed the three and was able to appoint successfully.

The importance of body language across cultures

Albert Mehrabian has one of the most misinterpreted quotes in the history of linguistics and the science of communication. Many claim that he wrote that only 20% of meaning is in the words we say – the remaining 80% is in the body and non-verbal language. The challenge, other than deciding how you can measure precisely 20% of the meaning, is in the fact that it ignores the context in which communication takes place and does not consider the success or failure of communication.

What is indisputable, however, is that spoken communication is much much more than merely what we hear. The words a speaker produces are a framework from which they hang contextual clues – facial expressions, arm movement, stance, proximity, eye contact all fill in the gaps of the meeting.

But we have a huge challenge that body language is a function of culture. In US culture, we are conditioned to mistrust someone who avoids eye contact. In fact, it’s a factor that prosecuting lawyers are taught to look for when interviewing crime suspects.

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Learning to read body language across cultures

Know thyself

Firstly, understand yourself. In anything relating to culture, make sure you are absolutely clear what your style is – what gests and stances do you use yourself to emphasize meaning? Be aware of how you interpret things like eye contact. This helps you recognize your cultural assumptions and alerts to you to the alternatives.

(Don’t) Trust your instincts

It may seem like a contradiction initially, but the second tip is to be acutely aware of your instincts. However, rather than relying on them, be suspicious of them! If you find yourself uncomfortable or backing away from someone and you’re not sure why, check if it’s a difference in cultural interpretation of body language. If you mistrust someone without any clear evidence, have you misread their unspoken language?

You may be absolutely right – or not. But it is essential that you make a conscious, intentional decision one way or the other rather than allowing your misperceptions to lead you down the wrong road.

Be clear of your own red lines

Thirdly, draw clear lines when it comes to deliberate body language across cultures. For me, personally, a hug is something intimate that I share with close family and I cannot bring myself to hug colleagues – which was a huge problem when I worked in a Spanish company. It was something that was so important that I became known as ‘the one who doesn’t hug’ – even before people knew my name. Personal space and physical contact are such sensitive areas, that it is extremely important that you are clear what you are comfortable with and that you ask permission before initiating contact with others.

Research cultural differences

And finally, do your cultural research. There is a clear difference in approaches that can be mapped on an explicit – implicit scale. Explicit communicators put much more emphasis on the words said; they are more direct and use more words. Implicit communicators rely much more on context – including body language – to fill out the meaning. For implicit communicators, the gaps between words and the context defines the precise meanings.

Everything we do is communication: without effective communication, business is impossible. We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t interpret correctly part of the message. Body language is important – it may not be exactly 80% of the meaning, but it’s certainly significant enough to be worth examining more closely.

The Chinese character for the word ‘listen’ is an amalgamation of, among other things, the words for eyes, ears and heart. The word ‘eyes’ is the clue: watching a person’s body language across cultures and facial expressions, as well as listening to the words they say, will give you a far more realistic picture of what they mean, and this meaning varies dramatically between cultures.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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