Body Language and Culture


When we travel to another country or deal with a person from another culture the immediate and obvious things that we are aware of include the way they are dressed and the language they speak.  If they dress very differently to us this can draw our attention at first but is soon dismissed as a barrier to communication.   The spoken language we use is the more obvious and permanent barrier if one of us doesn’t speak the other’s language well.  However very often the more fluently we both speak the same language the less we feel is being lost in translation. 

What we do not realise, and rarely focus on at a conscious level, is that much of the cultural misunderstandings that happen are at an entirely different level.   Our non-verbal communication is something that we use and interpret almost subconsciously and constantly when communicating with others.  As we do this without paying any real attention and most people we are surrounded by use the same unspoken rules of communication, we do not realise when we then come into contact with people from other cultures that everything we are communicating has a new and unknown layer being added to it.  A new layer that is often a misunderstood layer. 

Four of the elements that perhaps we are not aware of that affect our communication with other people – and are completely cultural in their origin are the following:  oculesics, proxemics, kinesics, and haptics.


Oculesics – “Are you looking at me?”


Depending on the culture is may be acceptable to look another person directly in the eyes or not, or maybe we should look away when listening, or speaking.  Our culture also determines the amount of time that it is acceptable to look at another person directly in the eyes before it is considered staring.

In East Asia and many African cultures it is common for subordinates to not look at their superiors directly in the eyes.  However in the USA it is considered a sign of honesty and frankness to look someone straight in the eye.  Mixing both cultures may lead to a manager from the USA believing that their subordinate is trying to hide something from them, rather than a sign that they are showing them respect.

My own experience coming from Ireland to Spain was that people looked at me less times in the eyes but when they did they maintained eye contact for much longer.  I still remember the first time I had a group of 40 Spanish people staring at me without blinking or nodding their heads and I felt completely intimidated for what seemed like an eternity.  Now, many years later, I am the one who has a tendency to maintain eye contact for too long (but possibly not regularly enough) when I speak to Irish people. 


Proxemics – “Don’t stand so close to me”


This area has been widely looked at since Edward Hall invented the term in the Post World War II years.  This refers to the personal space that we all have around us.  This goes from social space (a large distance between ourselves and others), through personal space (for normal conversations), to intimate space (as the name suggests).  Again, it is entirely culture dependent.

For example, in Scandinavian countries people stand very far apart in comparison to people in the Middle East.  Imagine someone from Sweden speaking with a friend in Saudi Arabia.  The Swede would want to maintain a personal space that is comfortable for them in Sweden.  Their friend from Saudi Arabia feels that the Swede is being cold and distant and steps closer to create a personal space that is acceptable in Saudi Arabia.  The Swedish person feels that their intimate space is now being invaded and they step back.  The Saudi Arabian closes the distance again and so the dance continues until the Swedish person has their back against the wall. 

A lack of understanding of Proxemics in culture can lead to one side feeling rebuffed by their interlocutor or being physically intimated and unsettled.  Neither feeling helps to create much rapport.


Kinesics – “Everybody wave your hands in the air”



Movements and gestures are commonly seen as an expression of different cultures – because, well, they are so visible.  When you come from one culture to another it is very easy to be struck by the layers of communication that are added or subtracted by different levels of gestures and body movements in your destination culture.

I remember living in Denmark and listening to many perplexed Mediterranean’s who were trying to fathom exactly what the Danish were trying to say to them while keeping their arms tightly folded.   I equally remember my northern European friends feeling quite nervous on occasion around the flaying arms and gesticulations of their southern colleagues.  One side felt that there was no passion to indicate the person’s true feelings on a subject while the other side felt that there was no need to start gesturing wildly when talking about something as simple as a 50% discount in a local clothes shop.

The area of kinesics also stretches to body movement in general and it is interesting to see again that culture plays its part.  People in some cultures turn to one side when passing on the street, or when kissing another person’s cheek when greeting for the first time, while people from another culture go to the opposite side.  When you mix these two cultures then embarrassing knocks may result.


Haptics - “Let’s stay in touch”


One thing is to stand close to another person, another thing is to touch them.  The level of physical contact between individuals also changes from one culture to another.  There are cultures where it is common to kiss, to hug, to shake hands, or none of the above.  Once conversations are initiated, if you come from a low contact culture, you may find yourself wanting to escape from your interlocutor as they grab hold of your arm or shoulder or keep your hand held in theirs.  They may tap you on the chest or slap you on the back.  All of these are seen in those cultures as signs of friendship and closeness, not that they are trying to bully you.

In the USA and Japan for example there is a relatively large space maintained between speakers in comparison to many other countries (similar Proxemics).  However in terms of Haptics, the Americans have a greater tendency to touch than the Japanese.  Of course, people from both countries would feel uncomfortable in Latin American countries with the greatly increased level of physical contact between individuals who are talking together.


These four areas are worth thinking about when you travel to other cultures because so much of the time we focus on the verbal communication that is happening – the language that is spoken and the words that are being used - that we do not realise that a whole other level of communication is taking place right under our noses (or perhaps with our noses) that dramatically influences our perception of the people we are surrounded by.   Understanding elements of haptics, oculesics, kinesics and proxemics may not stop you from feeling uncomfortable or the sensation that you are being given the cold shoulder at a physical level, but at a logical level you will be able to stop yourself from misrepresenting the other person’s intentions.  Hopefully that should be enough to restore a level of balance to your communication and to bring the focus back to the message they are transmitting, and not the cultural differences in the way that their body is communicating it.


Good luck and keep on moving.





The Negotiation Jungle

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