Did you know that, in some cultures, making the “thumbs up” gesture that Facebook is so famous for can get you “unfriended” really fast?
The culprit is body language!
Contrary to what you might think, body language isn’t universal. Gestures that mean one thing in you part of the world can mean the exact opposite somewhere else. As a result, it’s quite possible to offend someone without even opening your mouth, and out of no ill will on your part!
It’s also possible to convey a huge amount of information when communicating with someone on a non-verbal level.
This is why it’s so important, when you’re learning a new language, to also learn the secondary layer of meaning that it comes with: body language.
In this article, we’ll look at how body language in different cultures is used to communicate meaning. We’ll examine how the body is used to convey meaning as a whole, then check out 10 examples of body lingo around the world.
Various Aspects of Body Language
Body language is the act of communicating using anything other than your words. Let’s break down the different components of body language:
1. Facial Expressions, Head Movements and Eye Contact
The six generally accepted emotions—happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness—were once considered universal. You might think that everyone knows what “disgust” looks like!
Further studies, however, suggest that everything may not be so clear cut. Researchers have found meaningful cultural differences in the expressions.
For example, while a computer algorithm was quite adept at deciphering the six emotions in Western (Caucasian) faces, the same algorithm applied to Asian faces comes somewhat short.
Faces around the world, it turns out, express emotions through different levels of intensity and by engaging different facial muscles. In the specific study noted above, Asian faces display lower emotional intensity than Western faces and much overlap when registering surprise, fear, disgust and anger—which may make it hard for someone of Western origin to tell when someone of Asian origin is mad or scared (for example).
Head movements can also have different meanings in different cultures, so nodding to say “yes” might not always get you the reaction you expect!
2. Finger, Hand and Arm Gestures
No matter where you’re from, the default human being has 10 fingers split evenly between two hands. But cultures can use them in very different ways!
For instance, there are some signs that you make with your fingers in the West, that mean very specific things: thumbs up (one thumb up, expressing support or “OK”), the peace sign (the pointer and middle finger up, expressing peace and love) and “flipping the bird” (middle finger up, expressing insult to the recipient), to name just a few. These symbols can (and often do) mean something entirely different elsewhere in the world!
Even a gesture as seemingly universal as pointing at something with your finger turns out to be, well, not universal after all. Some cultures, it turns out, prefer to gesture at what they’re pointing out with their heads or noses. Other cultures use their thumb, an open hand or even their lips to point (as opposed to the aptly named “pointer finger”).
It’s safe to say that for every positive action or gesture that you know, there are places in the world where it’s considered crude, rude or gross. Whether you’re a businessman or a person who flies all over the world or just planning a trip abroad, it’s best to know what these gestures might be.
3. Proximity, Orientation and Physical Contact
The amount of physical contact you share with another person is highly dependent on one’s culture. Some cultures have an easy grace toward men cheek kissing other men, while other cultures would make do with a fist bump and a manly cough. Both of these are perfectly fine, and are just different ways of expression, much like apples are manzanas in Spanish and pommes in French.
A “Touchability Index” that ranks Europeans on their appetites for being touched ranks Fins as the most welcoming to physical contact. Meanwhile, the British languish at the bottom of the rankings.
The size of your “personal space” bubble is culturally determined. One study has discovered, for example, that South American countries generally require less personal space than most Asian countries.
The study of body language, much like the study of language itself, is a rich field!
How to Study Body Language in Different Cultures
I’m sure you’re convinced by now that body language should be a part of your language studies. Unfortunately, hand gestures, how close or far away from someone you should stand, head movements and other integral parts of training your body to speak a new language aren’t generally covered in language textbooks.
So how can you learn the body language of the language you’re studying? Well, the best way is by watching people interact with each other.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where you can physically observe people interacting while they speak your target language, that’s great! Go out and people-watch. Sit on a bench or in a cafe and observe the way people move, touch and gesture while they talk.
If you’re less lucky, don’t worry—there are other options.
You can search for your language on YouTube. Try looking for real-world interactions that people have. Movies, vlogs, skits and made-for-YouTube content all provide a good way to dip your toes into your target language and its accompanying body language.
Just remember that these are often scripted and posed. As a result, they can provide a good foundation but they might also be a bit unnatural.
You can also use FluentU for authentic video content. If you’re having trouble finding good content to use on YouTube, FluentU is a way to cut through the search and get right to the best authentic videos available.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. There are thousands of videos available, all of them hand-picked with language learners in mind. Thanks to the interactive dual-language subtitles, you’ll be able to watch real native speakers of your target language interacting naturally and understand everything that’s happening.
For example, you can clearly see the difference in body language between the Japanese woman in this clip and the French woman in this clip, even though they’re both doing the same thing—asking for directions.
FluentU currently has programs in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Russian and English, and you can freely switch between the languages under one account. Check out the free FluentU trial to see what the program has to offer, or just browse around and see how different cultures use body language in various situations.
Body Language in Different Cultures: 10 Ways to Speak Volumes Without Saying a Word
We’ve selected 10 country-specific gestures to highlight below. This is just a small sample of the big pool of body language. You’ll find many variations of the gestures below, sometimes even within the same country. We hope you enjoy this brief encounter with the wonders of non-verbal communication!
Bowing is big in many East Asian cultures, including Japan, China and Korea (among others). While Western countries reserve the bow at the end of a (hopefully) great stage performance, bowing in these East Asian countries is part of basic etiquette to show respect and gratitude.
In Korea, you bow when initially meeting a person, to say “Hello,” to bid “Goodbye” and to say “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”
Generally, the lower you bow, the more respect and deference you show the other person. And the longer you keep your head bowed also signifies your seriousness.
Depending on where you go, the rules and etiquette for bowing may be a little different and even vary between generations.
You probably use your fingers to count things, like signaling how many mugs of beer you want on a Tuesday night. In Germany, if you’re not careful, you might get drunk a little bit quicker. Not just because they have humongous beer mugs, but because they have a different way of finger counting.
In the U.S., the number “one” is signified by the pointer finger. In Germany—and a few other European countries like France and Italy—they start counting with the thumb. This slots the pointer finger at “two.” If you show the waiter a pointer finger, he might think that you’re saying “two” and bring you a pair of those huge mugs.
In the WWII movie “Inglorious Basterds,” an American undercover officer gives himself away when he asks for “three” glasses while signaling the waiter with his three middle fingers (pointer-middle-ring fingers). “Three,” in the German way of counting things, should have been thumb-pointer-middle fingers.
Needless to say, it did not end well for him.
In Western cultures, when we say “Yes,” we nod our heads up and down. When we say “No,” we swing the head from left to right. These gestures aren’t universal. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
The extent of the differences between cultures can be seen in the way people from India and other South Asian countries use their heads to express so much more than just a simple “Yes” or “No.” In India, “Yes” is expressed by tilting the head from side-to-side—that is, towards the shoulders. And the faster the shake, the more certain the “Yes” is.
This head shake gesture can also be used during a conversation to indicate that the listener is paying attention and being agreeable. Likewise, it can be a sign of courtesy and respect. It can mean many things. It’s pretty incredible how much you can express without using any words, isn’t it?
As Italians talk practically with their hands, there are probably hundreds of recognizable Italian hand gestures. The most quintessential of them is the “pinecone.” You can probably picture a young Italian man doing this with both his hands—with a yearning face that asks, “What the heck is going on!?”
With palms up, the pinecone is formed by bringing the tips of all your fingers to a single point. Rock your wrist back and forth, and you have the most recognizable hand gesture in the Italian world.
Think of it as the accompanying gesture for asking questions—especially when you’re utterly confused or desperate for the answer, for example: “What were you thinking?!” or “What’s happening?!”
As connoisseurs of the good life, the French have high standards for almost everything (not just with food and fashion), so you might hear them often say Comme ci comme ça, which is the equivalent of the English “So-so.”
When you ask them, for example, how their day went or how was the event, they can tell you it was okay—nothing really memorable or worthy of discussion. This “so-so” answer would often be coupled with a gesture of a palm-down hand is rocked from side to side—like a boat rocking back and forth.
So, how about you, “How was your day?”
So when a Chinese person refers to themselves, they don’t point to the chest like many other cultures. Instead, using the forefinger or thumb, they point to the nose.
Every time you want to signify “Me” or “I,” point to the nose. And I mean your nose. Touching the nose of others is considered extremely rude! (Then again, there probably aren’t many cultures where it’s socially acceptable to boop someone else’s nose during a conversation.)
Have you ever been in that awkward situation where you go in for a hug but the other person goes in for a cheek kiss? And by the time you notice, you’re not sure which cheek to start with and fumble the whole greeting? Yep, we’ve probably all been there!
So let’s get this off the table: in Switzerland, it’s three cheek kisses—starting with your right cheek.
Many countries in Europe and Latin America use cheek kisses as a way of greeting.
The Swiss kiss, in particular, is a common way to greet family and close friends—especially when it’s between girl-and-girl or girl-and-boy. Between men, not so much—they usually do with a warm handshake, unless they’re really close.
New acquaintances are welcomed with a handshake but as the relationship deepens, this graduates to cheek kisses.
Read up on a region’s cheek kiss best practices before traveling there, as the rules vary quite a bit between locations!
In a Western country, if someone on the street gives you a thumbs up, they’re likely being friendly and encouraging. That thumbs-up gesture says “Hello, friend! I am in approval of your outfit/action/existence!”
If someone on the street of an Arab country gives you a thumbs up, they might be saying something more like, well, “up yours.” That’s because in many Middle Eastern cultures like Iran, Iraq and parts of Greece, the “thumbs up” is basically the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger. Imagine that sturdy thumb and sitting on it, because that’s what the gesture is trying to say.
However, thanks to Hollywood movies, Facebook and other elements of popular culture disseminating in the Middle East, the thumbs-up gesture can sometimes just be a genuine thumbs up. In fact, several members of Middle Eastern leadership use the gesture themselves to mean “OK” or “cool.”
So how do you know if the gesture is meant in a positive or negative way? Maybe you never will. But you can just assume it’s supposed to be encouraging—just flash a smile and a nod of acknowledgment to the thumb’s owner and be on your merry way. Everyone wins!
Eye contact is a very important component of body language, and different countries place different subtexts to the same action.
In many countries, maintaining eye contact while you speak to someone signifies that you’re paying attention. (Think of a mother demanding “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”) In Japan (and a few other East Asian cultures), however, eye contact can signal aggression and disrespect.
In fact, many Japanese people are taught at an early age to look at peoples’ necks instead of in their eyes.
These days, it’s becoming more socially acceptable to look people in the eyes when you’re talking to them, but in certain situations (like more formal encounters or conversations with older people), you can be in for a bit of awkwardness if you maintain eye contact for too long!
Here we have another method of counting that probably differs from the way you’re familiar with.
Count on your fingers from one to five.
Chances are, you started with a balled-up fist and gradually uncurled each finger as you went along the numbers.
You’ll be glad to know that in Russia, people also count with their fingers. But instead of starting with a closed fist, they start with an open palm.
To count to five, for example, Russians open their palm then, sometimes with the help of the pointer finger on their other hand, curl in their pinky finger, followed by the ring finger and so on. By “five,” they’d have a ball-up fist.
You just learned how important and how different body language is for different cultures. Learning the specific gestures and movements for the particular language you are studying is a big help in communicating with clarity and effectiveness.
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