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Body Language Across Cultures

By: Julie-Ann Amos - Updated: 4 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Body Language Cultural Differences

It used to be that the study of body language across cultures was an academic pursuit interesting but not really vital in the course of daily living. Now, however, with our globalised economy and greater exposure to diverse cultures, understanding differences in body language can have a huge impact on many aspects of work, business, and personal life.

Examples of Cultural Differences
Cultural differences in body language may show up in a wide variety of ways, such as the amount of physical touch, the conversational distance between people, the interactions between same genders, the interactions between different genders, and the like.

For example, some cultures are very expressive when it comes to physical touch. Think about Italy where a big hug and kiss on each cheek is considered a common and acceptable greeting, and then compare it to Japan where a proper greeting consists of a respectful bow and no touch at all.

Personal space and comfort distances are very personal, of course, but they also are influenced by cultural expectations. In South America, for instance, personal space and comfort distances tend to be quite small. People stand very close to each other to talk, even when they don’t know each other very well. Go to the United States, though, and personal space becomes much larger; people are not as comfortable when others stand close to them, especially if they are not very well acquainted.

Cultural differences in body language extend to gender interactions as well. Many cultures still view men as dominant and of higher status than women, and their body language expectations reflect this view. Women may be expected to avert their eyes in the presence of a man, or walk a few steps behind him. Western cultures, in general, have gradually revised their gender expectations to allow men and women to share more equal status in terms of acceptable body language.

Practical Applications of Cultural Differences
Anybody who travels to different countries, whether for business or pleasure, must have a good understanding of body language expectations. In the business world, the wrong body language messages can skewer a deal quite fast. In the world of general travel, the wrong body language messages can lead to hostile and even dangerous situations.

For instance, in the Middle East a male businessperson has much more leeway in terms of where and how he walks than a female does, not to mention much different levels of access to local business opportunities. In fact, very few women do business in the Middle East because the cultural aversion to interacting with women is just too much to overcome.

If you are planning a vacation to other countries, you should always pay attention to the body language expectations. For instance, if you get lost in Japan you’re much more likely to get help from a local citizen if you know to show respectful body language and follow local customs of bowing and avoiding touch.

The bottom line when it comes to cultural differences is that knowledge is the key. If you go to a different culture it only makes sense to learn about their expectations and adhere to those expectations during your time there. It shows respect for the culture, respect for the people, and may even keep you from inadvertently breaking the law in some very conservative countries. When you understand and apply appropriate body language behaviours, your entire experience is likely to be more pleasant and successful.

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