Does Body Language Matter? You Bet it Does!

William Shakespeare said in Troilus and Cressida – ‘There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip’.

Language is a part of culture and plays a very important role in it. Without language, culture would not be possible. Yet language is not the only way to express our ideas and feelings. Body movement, eye contact, gesture, and facial expression are another form of language we call nonverbal communication. Body language makes up the largest part of our nonverbal communication. According to Social Anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, in a normal conversation between two persons, less than 15% of the social meaning is transmitted by words.

Body language is as much a part of our culture as our verbal language. Despite our failure to realize it, body language is not only based on how we move our body but is part of the way we communicate. By using facial expressions, gestures, and other body movements, we send messages to those around us.

Different cultures have different ways of using nonverbal communication and people have different gestures of conveying their expressions. However, nonverbal communication, like traffic, is not random; it has a purpose and there are common rules to guide its flow. Learning the different common rules of body language in different cultures is very useful for us to understand each other better.

People coming from the same culture share the common sense by using the same body language such as gazing and eye management, facial expressions, gestures, and body movements, but in different cultures nonverbal communication takes on different norms. For example, “Arms”, which are used little by Nordics during conversation, are an indispensable element in one’s communicative weaponry in Italy, Spain, and South America. In Africa, standing in a too “open” fashion, means that your posture might be inappropriate. In these cultures, one should stand with feet pressed together and hands interlaced in front of the body. In cultures such as America, where you stand with your feet shoulder-length apart, arms on the side, standing in this fashion will be interpreted as timid and insecure.

Here are a few tips for building awareness in your nonverbal communication during a cross-cultural interaction:

  • Body language. People in one culture may take offense if you stand too close to them or too far away. For example, Americans may feel uncomfortable and crowded if someone invades their personal space, which in their culture is up to 46 centimeters (18 inches). In Israel, the personal space requirement is much lower, and even complete strangers typically stand very close to one another to speak.
  • Be aware of your hand gestures. Many cultures use their arms freely as in Israel, Italy and the U.S, but the North Europeans find it hard to tolerate gesturing with the arms associating it with insincerity and over-dramatization. In Japan, gesturing with broad arm movements is considered impolite.
  • Eye contact. A certain level of eye contact is important in all forms of communication, but the expectation is different depending on the culture. For example, strong eye contact is expected with the Canadians, Germans, and Americans as it conveys sincerity. Finns and Japanese are embarrassed by another’s stare and seek eye contact only at the beginning of a conversation.
  • Use an appropriate level of animation. There are cultures where using dramatic facial expressions or hand gesturing is considered unacceptable. Countries such as Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Japan are showcased as being a more reserved culture and therefore do not appreciate theatrics in business interactions.

There are many factors that contribute to communicating effectively across cultures, and the way you communicate nonverbally with colleagues from other cultures is equally as important as the words you choose to use.

It is important to begin by understanding your own cultural beliefs and recognizing that you may need to step outside of your comfort zone in communicating with stakeholders from other cultures. Being aware of the similarities and the differences is the key to becoming culturally competent and navigating successfully your interactions from a Global Mindset perspective.