Body language’s dialects

When talking with people from different countries we generally assume that we can get by with some support of body language. What we sometimes forget is that some gestures can actually mean completely different things than what we’re used to.

Let’s take the ’O’ ring made with a thumb and an index finger. Are you used to using it when saying OK? Don’t do it in Greece, Turkey or Italy where it’s a very offensive gesture. In France you can use it more freely, just be aware that it means ’nothing’ or ’zero’. Another OK gesture, a thumb-up, shouldn’t be used in Iran and some African countries as it’s also considered obscene or offensive.

Do you nod as a yes and shake your head when saying no? There are some countries, like Bulgaria, countries of former Yugoslavia, Iran and India, where the meanings are the opposite. This can bring a lot of confusion in daily communication.

All the small gestures we might not even be aware of can carry a meaning we don’t intend. When being around people from East Asia or the Middle East we should pay attention to our feet. When seated, you shouldn’t show the soles of the shoes to the other person as this means we treat them as if they’re beneath us.

Another thing that differs across the world is eye contact. In the Western culture maintaining eye contact is a sign of honesty. However, Asian and African cultures treat it as a challenge or disrespect.

Knowing the language is not everything. You need to learn the culture as well. This applies not only to learning ’real’ languages but seems to be important when comes to body language as well.

If you found this story interesting, read this related article (in Finnish) or read a student’s story to get a hint of what you can learn in our language courses.

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