Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Body Language
Not Giving Offense When Working Abroad
You feel the meeting has gone really well. You sit back, smile, casually hook one leg over the other, and give your new client a cheery thumbs up. Suddenly, a chill descends on the room. Oh dear. If your meeting was in the Middle East, Greece or Japan, you've just committed at least one, and perhaps two, serious cultural faux pas.
You could be discussing a potential collaboration with an organization in Bulgaria, and you nod your head in approval of what your host is proposing. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, a nod can mean you disagree with him!
In this article, we'll discuss why it's important to be aware of the different meanings body language has in different countries and cultures. And we look at some of the faux pas you should avoid when working around the world.
The Importance of Cultural Awareness
In today's global business environment, you will likely visit foreign countries or build working relationships overseas. You may work directly with people from different cultures and backgrounds. Even if you work solely in your home country, you may have clients, colleagues, contractors, or suppliers from elsewhere.
This makes it important for you to understand cultural differences, for example, in clothing, food, communication, and body language. Showing respect for other cultures is also good business practice.
Developing Cultural Intelligence will improve your working relationships and potentially make you more successful. Conversely, getting it wrong can cause offense and misunderstanding that could, in extreme cases, lose you business or damage important relationships.
Common Cross-Cultural Differences
When you are dealing with people from different cultures, you should both understand that perceived insults are often entirely unintentional. So, while there are some general behaviors to be aware of, not every breach of etiquette will cause deep offense. Here are some examples of body language to be aware of:
Use of Hands or Fingers. Everyday gestures that you use at home may have very different meanings abroad. For example, across the Middle East, it is seen as offensive to eat or offer gifts with the left hand, and a "thumbs up" gesture is also considered rude.
Circling your index finger and thumb in an "A-OK" sign is frowned upon in Brazil, Germany and Russia, where it represents a part of the human body.
Pointing is a no-no in China, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America, and beckoning someone with a curled index finger "goes against the grain" in Slovakia, China, South East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
- Greetings. There's nothing simple about a simple handshake! While it is accepted as the norm pretty much worldwide, too firm a grip is seen as aggressive in many parts of the Far East, where a bow is still highly regarded. Handshakes in the Middle East often last longer than they do in Europe.
- Sitting. Be aware of your posture when you attend meetings or are dining. Sitting cross-legged is seen as disrespectful in Japan, especially in the presence of someone older or more respected than you. Showing the soles of your shoes or feet can offend people in parts of the Middle East. That is why throwing shoes at someone is a form of protest and an insult in many parts of the world – as former U.S. President George W. Bush famously discovered on a visit to Iraq in 2008.
Eye Contact. The degree of eye contact that is considered acceptable varies from country to country. Is it better, for example, to look someone in the eye, to hold their gaze, or to keep your eyes averted deferentially?
Across Latin America and Africa, extended eye contact is seen as a challenge whereas, in the U.S. and Western Europe, it shows you are taking an interest in what someone is saying and is regarded as a sign of confidence. In the Middle East, eye contact beyond a brief glance between the sexes is deemed inappropriate.
Touch. To what extent it is considered acceptable to be "touchy-feely" also varies from country to country. Compare, for example, the famous British "reserve" with the much more tactile conventions and traditions of many Arab, southern European, or Latin American countries.
An innocent hug made headlines around the world in 2009 when America's first lady, Michelle Obama, broke royal protocol on a visit to Britain by giving the Queen a squeeze!
- Gender. In many cultures, what is acceptable for a man may not be acceptable for a woman. The most obvious example is the issue of covering your head in some Muslim countries but also, within religions such as Islam and Hinduism, shaking a woman's hand can be considered offensive.
This list is by no means comprehensive. Please let us know the customs in your country, or that you have come across in other countries, by commenting at the end of this article.
How to Avoid Committing Cultural Faux Pas
The best way to avoid inadvertently causing offense with your body language is to learn as much as you can about the country's etiquette, values and styles of communication before you visit.
Our article on Cross Cultural Business Etiquette highlights some important differences in conducting global business.
You can also discover the diversity of cultural values in our Expert Interview on Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. To familiarize yourself with specific countries, see the "Managing Around the World" series in our Team Management section.
Finally, you can discover what distinguishes one place from another with our article on the Seven Dimensions of Culture.
Hand, eye, facial, and body gestures can have very different meanings in different countries and cultures. How you sit or greet someone, or the extent to which you should reach out and touch someone, may all be read in different and unexpected ways.
Being able to display cultural intelligence will improve your working relationships and potentially make you more successful in an increasingly globalized, multi-cultural working world.
The key is simply to learn as much as you can about a country's etiquette, values and communication styles before you visit.
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