A Body Language Course designed for the international business person is a definitely
an asset. It is said that only 10% of our human communication comes from words or
language but 90% comes from body cues.
Photo Credit: Elisa Hiding Pose - Elisabeth Sophia Fuchs
Body Language International Scenarios
International Body Language can result in one of three scenarios.
A body language is interpreted totally different depending on the culture which leads
A body language is meaningful in one culture but it has no meaning in other cultures.
This leads to non-communication. For example, a Japanese saying "saa" and scratching
his head due to embarrassment has no meaning in other cultures.
A body language is universally consistent no matter what culture it is. It is meaningful
and the message is consistent. This is your best case scenario.
Hand Gestures and International Body Language
Given the potential of miscommunication or non-communication, knowing the different
meanings of the same body language due to different cultures is vital for the person
dealing in international trade such as import from China.
The A-OK sign was given by President Richard Nixon when he landed in Brazil. A-OK
hand gesture used in America seems innocently enough. It means OK in America. However,
this hand gesture embarrassed the Brazilians because it means a woman's vagina. The
same sign in Japan means money and in French it means zero or nothing.
A thumbs up seems very common. Pilots all over the world give a thumbs up after
a flight to signify a good landing. A thumbs up in a British influenced country
such as Canada, the U.S., Australia, UK, and New Zealand means to hitch a ride or
a job well done. But in many other non-British influenced nations such as Nigeria,
a thumbs up is a vulgar insult. In Japan, a thumbs up means the number 5 while in
Germany, the same gesture means a number 1.
V for Victory or Peace
A V sign with your palm facing away from you means victory in Britain but the same
sign with the your palm facing towards you means something vulgar. It means "up
yours". The Victory gesture was first popularized by Prime Minister Winston Churchill
during the Second World War.
Hook' Em Horns Sign
A raised fist with index finger and baby finger extended up means 2 out in American
baseball. This is also the sign of the mascot for the University of Texas. However,
it also means that your wife is cheating on you in Italy. In Africa, it means that
you are cursed. The same sign as worn by Brazilian women in jewelry means good luck.
International Similarities & Differences in Body Language
Here are some commonalities and differences in body language from a global perspective:
Facial Expressions to show emotions are universal around the world. The communication
of a smile or a laugher to show happiness or a frown to show displeasure is perceived
the same whether you are negotiating an import deal in China or walking down the
streets of France.
The comfortable distance between two individuals differs from country to country.
The distance is very close, almost touching in Latin America and in Italy. This
is very uncomfortable for nationalities from the UK, U.S. and especially Asia. Territorial
space influences the way we greet one another. In European countries of France,
Belgium and Netherlands, people greet one another or say good-bye by kissing the
other person on the cheek once, twice and even three times. The American and the
British prefer a more distant handshake.
Blowing Your Nose
Covering your nose with a tissue or handkerchief to blow your nose is a way to prevent
diseases from spreading but it is also cultural. This is a common practice in European
and Western nations. However, it is the opposite in Asian countries. People spit
and blow their nose openly in the public not worrying where their mucous and secretions
land. This practice often horrifies the westerner visiting places like China on
Keeping a Sniff Upper Lip
People from some countries such as Britain tend to be more reserved then people from
other nations. The unemotional facial gesture was popularized by King Henry VIII
as a means to demonstrate his royalty and superiority. Such cold, unemotional image
of the British still occurs today.
Patting on the Head
A pat on a child's head in America means affection but the head is considered sacred
and should not be touched in other parts of the world.
7 International Body Language Tips
Here are seven body language tips to help you with your international dealings:
It is impolite to wink at someone in Hong Kong.
It is bad manners to stare into someone's eyes in Japan. Look at the person's neck
Bow rather than shake hands in Japan.
Present business cards with both hands in Japan.
Use your right hand to present things and to eat when you are in the Middle East
or the Far East. The use of the left hand is considered unclean.
Showing the sole of your shoes to an Arab is an insult. Be careful how you sit in
A nod is a no and shaking of the head means yes. These countries seem to have this
reversed expression: Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia.
Body language has an important influence in the business world on our decisions.
Think of all the body language cues in a job interview in your own country. When
we travel across the world, we must take into consideration all the nonverbal cues
to make us more successful. It ultimately impacts who we like to do business with.
Given the differences in culture and how it impacts Body Language, it is no wonder
that mixed messages are often received in international business dealings. It is
well worth the time to take a look at a Body Language Course.
Barbara T. - Import to New Zealand
“There is little information available on the cultural aspects of doing business
abroad. Thanks for educating us aspiring import entrepreneurs!”