Mind Your (Body) Language! » Mind Tools Blog

Mind Your (Body) Language!

June 5, 2015


When dipping a toe into new cultures or visiting a country for the first time, the risk of committing an accidental faux pas is very real.

At best, you suffer mild embarrassment, endure being the butt of a few jokes, and quickly make note of a lesson learned the hard way. In extreme cases, you may cause serious offense that cannot be laughed off as a simple misunderstanding.

It’s not just the inexperienced, individual traveler who “slips on the banana skin” of an unintentional faux pas. Sometimes, even multi-national business giants can make inexplicable and expensive gaffes, despite having the resources and expertise available to them so that they’d be “clued up” on the traditions, language and culture of any new market. And global statesmen, well used to striding across the international stage, can also “put their foot in it” with an ill-judged gesture.

Luckily, in my own travels, I have avoided any major faux pas. All I have suffered is a little awkwardness in France, when I offered my hand in greeting to a matronly landlady, but was suddenly pulled in close for three kisses on the cheek!

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, fell foul of a misjudged hand gesture during his 1992 visit to Australia. Thinking he was offering a peace sign, he gave a palm-inwards “V” sign to a group of protesting farmers in Canberra – which is recognized as a crude gesture “Down Under.”

But George Bush Sr was outdone on the offending scale by one of his White House predecessors. On a visit to Brazil, then Vice President Richard Nixon hadn’t even set foot on the ground when he gave an “A-OK” gesture from the steps of his plane. Unfortunately, it had a spectacularly different, and insulting, meaning in that country!

It’s worth remembering that most people will accept and understand that the perceived insult is entirely unintentional, and a swift apology will usually defuse an awkward encounter.

But pre-warned is pre-armed, and our article today, Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Body Language, highlights some of the ways gestures and behaviors can be interpreted in different cultures and different countries.

And the potential for error goes beyond physical gaffes. If you don’t do your research into a country or culture, your business can suffer, too.

A lack of homework cost U.S. DIY giant Home Depot® tens of millions of dollars in a failed bid to crack China. It opened 12 stores after its initial 2006 launch during a house-building boom in the country, but it hadn’t counted on the Chinese perception of DIY. In the West, DIY is enjoyed by all levels of society but, in China, it is regarded as a sign of poverty and there is status attached in hiring other people to carry out work for you.

Pepsi® might also have benefited from hiring a Chinese translator before exporting its former “Come Alive!” slogan. Legend has it that, in China, the phrase was interpreted as, “Bring your ancestors back from the grave!” It may have caused a few red faces at Pepsi HQ, but it didn’t have any reported negative impact on sales.

What’s the worst faux pas you’ve committed? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s unintentional insult? Join the discussion below!

3 thoughts on “Mind Your (Body) Language!

  1. Jagdish Choudhry wrote:

    Lot to learn from this short post – little bit of home work, can save somebody of major major embarrassment.

  2. Jocelyne wrote:

    As I was trying to learn to speak English when I was 19, I asked a university professor who had taken me to visit an apartment she wanted to sublet the following question: “didn’t you find my scarf in the apartment?” instead of “did you by any chance find my scarf in the apartment?”. My actual question was implying she had found it and kept it…ouch…

    1. YolandeMT wrote:

      Oh my word, Jocelyn – but I’m sure she understood what you meant. I’ve also had rather embarrassing ‘language’ moments. Fortunately, the longer the time since the event, the funnier it becomes in retrospect. 🙂

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