Body language across cultures

Published on August 24th, 2021

Interpreting the non-verbal signals of business associates from different cultures is an essential component of cross-cultural understanding. 

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 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.

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Here are five quick tips for reading body language across cultures:

Japan: An explicit culture 

Japan is an especially explicit culture (meaning that the context of a message, including non-verbal clues, carries more weight than the words) so interpreting body language is even more important. Prolonged eye contact may feel like being honest and sincere to you, but to a Japanese person, it can signify aggression. In Japan, elegance, poise and self-control are associated with respect, so don’t slump or slouch, which indicates a lack of respect for others. The Japanese also control facial expressions so do not show visible annoyance, or cross your arms across your body, which is considered aggressive. Remember that a smile can indicate embarrassment or anger, not just pleasure. Finally, when a Japanese person nods repeatedly, it doesn’t mean they agree with you, just that they are listening.

China: Embrace silence

China, another explicit culture, is a crowded, collectivist society in which people are used to being in close proximity to one another. Don’t be offended if a contact stands close to you. In a meeting, keep your feet on the floor. Feet are considered unclean and it’s extremely rude to point your foot at someone. During negotiations, do not be afraid of silence. For a start, it means the other person is thinking and quite possibly in agreement with you. But it can be used as a weapon against you if the other side can gauge your discomfort during a pause in conversation. 

USA: Maintain eye contact 

Americans are used to a lot of physical space, so standing too close to someone can be interpreted, even subconsciously, as an act of aggression. Strong eye contact is important, or you may be viewed as weak or insincere. Someone who puts their feet on the desk or their hands behind their head is making themselves take up more space and expressing dominance or superiority. Americans respond to non-verbal feedback while they are talking, so nodding, smiling and making eye contact while listening are all positives. Avoid silence in conversation; it makes people uncomfortable. 

Saudi Arabia: Commit to the conversation 

Dignity and respect, both key values of Islam, translate into everyday life in Saudi Arabia. As such, show self-control in your body language. Don’t slouch. Maintain eye contact, which implies both commitment to the conversation and dominance (if you are a man talking to another male). Save face – yours and that of your counterpart’s – by keeping emotions and facial expressions under control. At the same time, understand that Saudis may seem very tactile when two men are interacting. Your counterpart may stand closer than you are used to and may touch your arm to emphasize a point. Shrinking away is considered rude. 

Never use the left hand in a social setting (it is considered unclean in Islam) and never sit with the soles of your feet showing, which is both disrespectful and unclean. 

Argentina: Create empathy

Argentinian culture includes a communication style that is passionate and articulate at the same time as dignified and reserved, while focusing on saving face. People are tactile and affectionate and will often stand close to one another and use expansive hand and facial expressions to make a point and create empathy, without losing this sense of reserve. An expressionless face and a still posture can make you come across as cold and detached. So does backing away if someone enters what you feel is your personal space. 


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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