Interesting Body Language Features From Other Cultures
You may occasionally hear the phrase ‘the world is getting smaller’. Indeed, the Internet, increased air travel and trade links between countries can all be cited as contributory factors in this age of globalisation. More than ever it has never been so important to learn and understand the difference in body language between cultures.
You might be surprised to learn that small everyday gesticulations in western culture may be perceived as rude and ignorant in other cultures. Similarly, certain aspects of body language in other cultures may seem overly familiar or invasive to those that are more reserved.
KissingKissing in the western world is a complex thing. A person can kiss and be kissed affectionately, platonically or passionately. There is a world of difference in appropriateness between a peck and a smooch. Kissing between the opposite sexes is widespread both privately and publicly.
In some more conservative cultures, kissing a member the opposite sex in public is a definite faux pas, especially in deeply religious societies. In China and Japan, kissing is not usual as a greeting. Whilst countries such as the USA, Australia and the UK have yet to see men kissing as a greeting, a welcoming platonic kiss on both cheeks with the same sex is a matter of course in many regions, especially around the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.
PointingIn the western world, we often point at things to help explain a point. Although it is sometimes considered rude to point directly, a general point with the forefinger at an inanimate object is fine. However, in many Asian countries, such as China, pointing with the forefinger in public is considered quite rude. The alternative is to gesticulate towards the point of interest with an open palm that faces upwards.
The Right HandshakeThe way you meet and greet someone is perhaps one of the most diverse body language practices in the world. Where you come from will often determine the way that you greet a person.
In the western world, handshakes between men and women are of course the most widespread form of greeting. In less formal circumstances, hugging and a kiss on the cheek are also commonly practised. This also tends to be the case now for many Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, particularly in business situations.
But again, certain social etiquette will come into play – for instance in a strict Muslim culture, kissing a woman in public, especially if she is unmarried, would not be acceptable. A man would only shake hands with a woman if she offered him her hand first.
There is also more emphasis placed on using the correct hand in Muslim and Hindu society. The left hand is considered unclean, so practices such as handshaking and eating are only ever performed with the right hand.
BowingThe historic act of bowing is still very much in practice in places like Japan, China and Korea. These countries are steeped in a culture where respect for elders and those in authority is of the utmost importance, and are sometimes regarded as the most reserved cultures in the world. In the western world, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of strength and interest – in many Asian countries it is perceived as rude.
However, did you know that bowing can vary between different cultures and regions? The way you bow can also depend on the social situation and the reason you are bowing. For instance, the way you bow when greeting someone can be different to a bow of apology or thanks. In the western world, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of strength and interest. But in many Asian countries it is perceived as rude, so there is no direct eye contact when bowing. In Japan, eye contact is generally not direct when in conversation – a person will tend to look towards the collar area instead.
MisunderstoodThere are certain body language acts that many westerners might not even consider to be rude abroad. For instance, biting your thumb in Italy is considered rude, but Italians may not realise that sitting with the soles of your feet on show in the Middle East would be seen as highly disrespectful. Likewise, someone from the Middle East may not realise that greeting a member of the same sex with a kiss on both cheeks would be deeply inappropriate.
A Muslim person believes that bowing is only appropriate in worship. A Chinese person may not realise that a British person would consider their more relaxed attitude to spitting in public very bad manners, and a British person may not consider that making the ‘OK’ sign with the index finger and thumb in Brazil would be seen as highly offensive.
If you intend to travel abroad, it is always worth researching the social etiquette of your destination. Religion, social standing, gender and the region can all affect what is considered appropriate, what is normal and what is expected. A little effort in understanding other cultures in this way can prove invaluable with ensuring a successful and enjoyable experience.