I thought he was checking me out… Misinterpreting non-verbal communication across cultures
April 19, 2016
I will never forget one of the dilemmas I ran into when I went on my first trip to the Philippines. My husband introduced me to one of his best friends, but had to leave the room to welcome his other buddies. We were left alone, sitting in awkward silence. Me, being Western thought it would be polite to ask some questions and get to know his best friend.
However, I noticed he would never answer my questions. He would simply raise his eyebrows quickly up and down every time I would ask a question. It was not that I just felt he was being rude, but that from a Western perspective he was checking me out – you know, guys, when they check out a girl and use their eyebrows to show they like her. I felt uncomfortable because I did not understand how his friend could do this to my husband. They were friends, right!?
It was only some six months later and after meeting other Filipinos that I realized that this was a common way of communicating “yes” or “I agree”! It had nothing to do with checking someone out like in the West! Haha! Even though I was married to a Filipino, but due to not living in the country at the time, I was not aware of this very common way of non-verbal communication. What fun!
So when we talk about non-verbal communication, it is about the communication in which we do not talk, but express the message using various elements and visual clues. These clues can include body language, distance (personal space), and physical appearance as well as gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, vocal characteristics, and touch.
These are the main characteristics most people would come up with when asked about non-verbal communication. However, if we look at non-verbal communication cross-culturally, we see that a long list of additional aspects needs to be included that are in need of attention when living or working with different cultures. These characteristics can further include punctuality, giving and receiving gifts, showing emotions or working extra hours, just to name a few. Usually, these are referred to as a part of a country’s cultural etiquette, but they communicate a lot in the way of non-verbal communication, too.
Just in the same way that verbal communication can be in no way standardized for all countries, nor can non-verbal communication be neglected or considered as not important or crucial for a business deal or any given relationship.
Oftentimes, it is how someone behaves which will make you like or dislike that person, rather than what he or she says: “It’s not what you say but how you say it!” or “Actions speak louder than words”. Your body language reveals more information than the actual content of your message. Therefore, it is important to pay close attention to the way you communicate non-verbally when dealing with people from other cultures.
Let us take a look at eye-contact. In some cultures looking someone in the eye is assumed to indicate honesty and straightforwardness, whereas in other cultures it can be taken as challenging and rude.
For example, in the USA people find it easier to connect with someone if they look them directly in the eye. Also in Arab culture, a great deal of eye contact is used, and using too little may be regarded as being disrespectful. In English culture, using eye contact is also important but if you use it too much, people may start to feel uncomfortable. Whereas in many Asian countries, you will find the opposite where eye contact is considered rude and somewhat aggressive.
So think about the dilemma, an (inexperienced) Asian person is in when doing business with a country that uses eye contact? Not only are they not used to it and feel uncomfortable, but their (again inexperienced) business partner is likely to feel this uneasiness and possibly think that the Asian person has something to hide and is not true to their word. Or even if an American wants to do business in Asia, they would be considered rude, authoritative and might not be someone to warm up to from an Asian perspective. If neither party is aware of this dilemma or not prepared what to look out for, then you can already imagine how difficult and more challenging it could be for business deals to happen and relationships to be created.
Let us look at something some may consider easier to get a hang of, namely gestures. Most of us are aware that certain gestures can have different meanings in other countries. Naturally, the first advice would be to be aware or even refrain from using them unless you know for sure that you will be understood and you will not offend anyone.
However, what if you travel to a country like Italy? Most will know that Italians love to use their hands to speak, communicate and express their emotions. What a delight it is to watch them do this! Yet, many people will not be aware that the Italians use on average up to 250 gestures a day. Now think about it, when travelling there. A simple motion of your hand or arm that does not mean a thing to you, could communicate so much, and possibly not what you intended, to your Italian counterpart. Ever thought of that? You want to land that business deal or get that girl? Start learning Italian – the Italian way!
You more you read into non-verbal communication or cross-cultural etiquette, the more you will be aware of the fine nuances that make up communication and can lead to a good or not so good relationship. For example, dress code: The list is long and business attire varies between cultures. Thus, it is better to dress more formal than being too lax. For some cultures, not dressing up could mean that you are not really interested in doing business with them as you do not make much of an effort in impressing them or thinking it is worthwhile as it may seem like any other day for you.
When it comes to everyday dress, you will find, that many Asian women embrace their femininity and enjoy wearing skirts, dresses, wearing a whole lot more make-up than maybe average Western women. However, from a Western perspective, it may come across as being an “easy girl”. On the contrary, many Asian may think that Western women do not really like taking care of themselves and let themselves go. I have heard both sides multiple times, but as with any culture, we cannot say either is good or bad, it is just a matter of perspective and being different.
Aspects of your body language you should consider are the ways you sit, fold your hands, put your feet up, bow, and nod. Some cultures (take the Indonesian) may consider it offensive if you cross your legs while sitting and do not put both feet on the ground when talking to someone. In some cultures it can be a big no-no to pat someone’s back or touch someone’s head, whereas in other cultures it just shows your appreciation of the person or a job well done.
Even though some may argue that shaking hands has become the general rule, assume it is not. Even if welcoming guests to a Western home country, do not assume they are the ones to adjust and will shake your hands. No. This may be offensive and already lead to a first insult and break in the relationship without you knowing it. Rather wait a moment and see what your client will do. If he/she stretches out his/her hand then it is ok to do the handshake, but if not, understand that your client may feel more comfortable in his/her own way of greeting or saying hello. If you still have this point of view that people should adjust to your culture, then maybe you should consider how important this relationship or business transaction is for you.
And there is more…
Personal space?? Some cultures may not understand what a Western person is talking about. Gift giving? To unwrap or not unwrap - that is the question. Is white wrapping paper acceptable? Not in some Asian countries, where it is associated with death and funerals.
The list is endless and you would have to look into each country individually to know or understand the differences in non-verbal communication.
So, if you have the opportunity to go abroad whether for travel or for business, do consider these points before going and read up on the cultural etiquette of the country. It will go a long way – even if you make mistakes – the effort will be very much appreciated.
How about you? What is your experience? Please share your experiences in the comment box below!
Need help to overcome these obstacles? You don’t know how to overcome differences? You need more information or training for your company or as an individual? Please check out my cross-cultural lessons including basic cultural etiquette!