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Body Language in Different Cultures

Sameer
Written by Sameer. Posted in Social Life on 26 September 2009.
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Culture is the way we live. It is the air we breathe. It is the thoughts we think. It is the clothes we put on. Culture is what shapes our perception. It is the collection of values that sustain and direct our lives.

There are mainly two problems in communicating with people across cultures. The first is inability to note and read the symbols that other cultures display. The second is the tendency to attach to the symbols meanings derived from one’s own culture. In either case there is great potential for serious misunderstanding.

Every culture has its own body language, with gestures that are peculiar to it. Since the meanings of many of our body movements and gestures are culturally determined, some gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

In Greece, waving, and in the Middle East calling someone with the finger, are insults. When a Brazilian taps his head, he is indicating that he is going through a thinking process; but the same gesture stands for ‘Crazy’ in other places. Tapping the nose also has different interpretations: it means ‘keep it secret’ in Britain, hiss when they want to show extreme disapproval; in Japan hissing is an expression of social deference.

There are number of ways of showing agreement (‘yes’) and disagreement (‘no’): the British nod the head up and down and move it from side to side respectively; these signs have just opposite meaning in Turkey and Greece. In Sicily, the head is tilted back slightly and the chin thrust out to signify ‘no’. In Abyssinia, the head is tiled back and the eyebrows raised to signify ‘yes’, whereas to show disapproval the head is jerked towards the right shoulder.

To converse with hands in one’s pockets is impolite in France, Belgium, Finland and Sweden. Raising one’s arms in Fiji is bad manners, but crossing them over the chest is good manners.

Some gestures commonly found specifically in India: Touching the feet of an elder or a guru as a sign of respect; namaste for greeting; laying the hands on the head as blessings; squatting with palms held upward or placed on the knees during meditation; and so on.

So, we can say that certain body signs are associated with specific groups or cultures. To ensure better relationships when you are in a new cultural context, to adopt local ways of non-verbal communication, here I am giving certain body languages in different countries.

England

-    Loud conversations and any form of boisterousness in public places should be avoided.
-    Avoid staring at someone in public. Privacy is highly valued and respected there.
-    If you smoke, it is the custom to offer cigarettes to others in your conversational group before lighting up.
-    When addressing a group, you should avoid rubbing nose, standing with hands in the pockets or shuffling the feet.
-    Men should cross their legs at the knees rather than placing one ankle across the other knee; women usually cross them at the ankles.

France

-    When entering a room, greet each person in the room.
-    Close friends and young people often kiss on either cheek but it is actually touching cheeks and ‘kissing the air’
-    Forming a circle with your thumb and forefinger and placing it over your nose, and then twisting; this signals that ‘some one is drunk’.
-    Playing an imaginary flute is a way of signaling that someone is talking on and becoming tiresome.
-    On French highways, if another driver raises his hand in the air, fingers up, and rotates it back and forth, it means he is not happy with your driving.
-    Snapping the fingers of both hands, or slapping an open palm over the closed fist both have vulgar meanings.

As a final word on actions and physical behavior in France, just remember that the word “etiquette” is derived from French.

Germany

-    A fairly firm handshake is the custom among men.
-    Shaking hands with other hand in a pocket is considered impolite.
-    Men, rise when a woman enters the room or when conversing with a women. On the other hand, women may remain seated.
-    Never open a closed door without knocking first
-    At dinner parties, don’t drink until your host begins.
-    Chewing gum while conversing with another person is considered extremely impolite.
-    To signal ‘good luck’, Germans make two fists with thumbs tucks inside the other fingers and then make a motion like they are pounding lightly on a surface. 
-    During operas or concerts, it is important to remain quiet and still. Coughing or     restlessness is considered very rude.

Iran

-    Handshaking is the customary form of greeting. Good friends may greet each other with a slight embrace and a gesture of cheek kissing.
-    Shaking hands with a child shows respect for his parents.
-    When entering homes, it may be the custom to remove one’s shoes first. Always remove your shoes before entering a mosque.
-    The ‘Thumb’s up’ gesture is considered vulgar in Iran
-    Refrain from slouching in a chair or stretching your legs out in front of you.

Saudi Arabia

-    Men will greet each other with a light but sincere handshake. An embrace and cheek kissing may be added to their greetings.
-    As in other parts of the Middle east, the sallam  greeting may be observed. This is done by using the right hand to touch the heart and then the forehead in one upward sweep. It is accompanied by saying salaam alaykum.
-    People of same sex will stand closer together than Europeans
-    Avoid excessive amounts of pointing or signaling with the hands.
-    Avoid showing the bottom of your sole to another person, it is considered rude.

Australia

-    A firm, friendly handshake is the customary greeting here. It’s not necessary to offer to shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first.
-    Good friends may pat one another on the back, but there is not much physical expressiveness of emotions beyond that. It is considered unmanly.
-    When addressing audiences, use erect posture and modest gestures
-    Even if you are friends, winking at a woman is considered rude.
-    Never jump into a line; always go politely to the end and wait for your turn.
-    Australians are known to be warm, friendly and informal, but dislikes expressive behavior in any form.

Japan

-    As you know, the graceful act of bowing is the traditional greeting for the Japanese. However, the Japanese have also adopted the western practice of shaking hands with a light grip with eyes averted. The reasons are that a firm grip to them suggests aggression and direct eye contact is considered as slightly intimidating.
-    The simple act of exchanging business cards is more complex in Japan because the business card represents not only one’s identity but one’s station in life.
-    Avoid clapping Japanese on the back, standing very close or any prolonged physical contact.
-    Displaying an open mouth is considered very rude.
-    One should not shout or raise the voice in anger.
-    The ‘O.K.’ gesture in Japan may be interpreted as the signal for ‘money’.

United States

-    A firm handshake accompanied by direct eye contact is the standard greeting in the United States.
-    Americans tend to stand just about one arm’s length away from each other while conversing in public.
-    Direct eye contact in both social and business situations is very important.
-    Many Americans become uncomfortable with periods of silence. Therefore in business or social situations, if a gap occurs they will quickly try to fill in with conversation.
-     It is considered impolite to use toothpicks in front of other people.
-    Using the index finger to point at objects or to point directions is perfectly common and acceptable.

My India

-    The traditional greeting in India is the namaste. The namaste is also used when saying good-bye.
-    Men customarily do not touch women in either formal or informal situations.
-    Ask permission before you smoke cigarettes.
-    Whistling in public is considered very impolite.
-    Indian businessmen may indulge in warm and even enthusiastic back-patting and slapping. This is merely a sign of cordiality and friendship.
-    Pass gifts or other articles with the right hand, eat with the right hand, and point with the right hand.
-    Kissing in public is very much offensive in India.

Indians are very well-behaved, polite and friendly in nature, and respect their culture and traditions. They believe Guests are another form of God!!

Sameer

Author: Sameer

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