Taking it to the world
Great business communicators have their antennae out for signals all the time. They’re alert to what others are saying on every level. They’re also aware of how they project themselves, in person, on the page or screen and in the subliminal cues they send out in their own body talk. But what if you’re doing business overseas or with people from another culture? Do all those signals translate in the same way? Nope.
Body language is not universal, any more than any other language. What may indicate open, friendly communication in one country may mean something quite different somewhere else. If you’re building your export business, it pays to be aware of how various gestures and body postures are interpreted in the country where you want to foster better business relationships. Even at home, an understanding of what non-verbal cues mean in different cultures can be helpful, if your workforce or client base is multicultural.
Awareness of non-verbal cues will help you to communicate more effectively at all levels. If you’re taking your business into places where you’re not sure of the cultural subtexts, it may help to add this to your business research.
Did you really mean that?
The OK hand signal (index finger and thumb together, other three fingers extended). In Japan it usually refers to money or a request for payment. In Brazil, Russia and some parts of Germany, it’s considered extremely rude and in Turkey, Venezuela and some parts of Europe it signifies a person is homosexual. In France it means ‘zero’.
The thumbs-up which so often means ‘it’s all good’ to us, is rude and insulting in the Middle East. As a numerical indicator it’s problematic as in Germany and Hungary it refers to the number 1 while it represents the number 5 in Japan.
‘It’s rude to point’ is something many of us grew up with as a caution not to point at other people, though it was ok to point at objects or places. However, pointing is genuinely considered rude in many parts of Asia and South America. If you want to point out something or someone, it’s better to use an open hand with all fingers together.
Beckoning people to ‘come here’ by curling the index finger with the palm facing up is considered insulting in Slovakia and many parts of Asia. It may actually be cause for arrest in the Philippines. If you want to gesture for people to come closer, particularly in much of Europe and Asia and in some Pasifika countries, then hold your hand palm down and move your fingers in a curling motion.
Room to move
Even how much personal space you take up and how much space you accord to others sends a message.
Personal space operates on a sliding scale. It’s influenced by culture, gender and context. Two women will tend to stand closer together than two men or a woman and a man. People from crowded places such as China or New York City will be used to a smaller circle of personal space while those from sparsely populated places such as western Queensland will be accustomed to a much bigger ‘bubble’ of personal space.
Sometimes personal space is artificially created by avoiding eye contact and angling body posture away from other people such as in a crowded tube carriage or in a lift. Then, as soon as people exit the train or lift, they automatically take back their ‘natural’ personal space.
Status will influence personal space, as people will instinctively give someone of high status more space. This is more noticeable in cultures where people are more conscious of status, as in Asian countries. Cultures where personal relationships are considered important in business will tend to shrink the personal space bubble, as in parts of South America and Africa.