Gestures or Subtle Cues?
By Terri Morrison
© Copyright 2004, All Rights Reserved
Many cultural anthropologists divide countries into low-context (i.e.: the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States) and high-context societies (i.e.: Japan, France and Qatar). In low-context cultures, information is predominantly communicated verbally or in writing, in an overt, frank manner. But in high-context societies, much information is transmitted non-verbally, with subtle, indirect cues. Therefore, “Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say,” is not always the best policy in places like Japan or Indonesia. Key points often go unsaid…but are clearly understood.
To complicate matters, many non-verbal communications have entirely different meanings from one country to another. To illustrate, here are some standard, initial interactions examined from several countries’ perspectives.
- Eye Contact—From the introduction to the farewell, appropriate eye contact varies greatly depending upon the country. In the United States, direct eye contact is considered a sign of honesty and reliability. Shifting one’s gaze away, or to the floor indicates a lack of attention, or worse, deceit.
However, in Latin America, intense eye contact between men can be considered challenging and aggressive. Depending upon the situation, subordinates may not always look superiors in the eye for a protracted period of time. If a Hispanic looks away when being questioned, he or she is probably being respectful, rather than hiding something.
Extended eye contact between the sexes—in a purely business setting—is common in the United States, but can be interpreted as an overture for more intimate communications in many Latin and Mediterranean countries.
- Smiles—“You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”
While a smile is generally part of an introduction, smiles aren’t always the universal signal for friendship. Although smiles invite communication in much of the Western Hemisphere, in the Far East, a smile can be used to cover up embarrassment, dismay or fury. If you’re negotiating with Japanese, Chinese or Indonesian prospects, an inscrutable smile is used to communicate far more than pleasure. It’s a form of polite behavior, which masks anything from sincere enjoyment to menace. When accompanied by a protracted period of silence, a mysterious smile can unnerve Western salespeople. Relax, if you have already made your statement, it’s acceptable to sit respectfully in silence, and smile back.
In the French frame of reference, a person who grins too much can be regarded as simple. And in Germany, smiles are often reserved for family, friends and social situations, but not displayed freely in business settings.
- Shaking Hands
In the United States, a firm grip has long been an indicator of strength of character, but styles of handclasps can definitely vary around the world. In Asia, a weak, extended grip is normal and doesn’t belie the negotiating strengths of the participants.
If you’re in a Muslim or Orthodox Jewish environment, you must be highly sensitive to touching the opposite gender. Devout orthodox Muslims and Jews must not touch women, so follow your hosts’ lead.
The tradition of bowing is so complex that Asians attend classes in the proper protocol of the bow. It’s unlikely that any international visitor would be able to appropriately execute a formal bow (to the right depth, with the correct duration, etc). However, a polite attempt to bow in greeting will be appreciated by your Asian hosts. If you’re the subordinate in the relationship, bow lower. Be sure to learn an appropriate verbal greeting to express with the bow.
Most initial business meetings around the world don’t involve a kiss. But after establishing a relationship with clients in the Middle East, Latin America, many parts of the Mediterranean and parts of Africa, there may be times when your clients/friends initiate a brief kiss on either cheek, accompanied by a handshake, hug or pat on the back.
If you’re in Brazil, this custom may occur between the sexes after only one or two meetings. In the Middle East, the same custom is likely to happen between males, followed by an extended period in close proximity. Whatever you do, never back away from a kiss. You don’t want to undermine your new business relationship by being coy about your personal space. As the saying goes, “When in Rome (or Rio or Riyadh), act as the Romans do.”
In the 1990s, a U.S. governmental study evaluated the characteristics of successful ambassadors and diplomats. Of all the variables that were measured, the most telling indicator of long-term success was their capability to pick up on non-verbal communications within the target country. Overall, those individuals who comprehended a situation without auditory reinforcement were most capable of maneuvering successfully through the maze of international politics that occur in any global transaction.
There are thousands of cultures around the world, and an immense variety of non-verbal communications. Becoming sensitive to the subtle gestures of your surroundings can help you avoid insulting your companions by what might be an innocuous movement in your home country, but is taboo in theirs. (Like the “A-Ok” sign in Brazil. It’s obscene.) But when in doubt about a gesture, keep your hands to yourself.
Terri Morrison is a popular speaker, author, and president of Getting Through Customs, the leading Web-based training and software firm for international business travelers. Contact Terri directly at
TerriMorrison@getcustoms.com For information on Getting Through Customs' books, database and seminars, visit
getcustoms.com, call 610-725-1040, or fax: 1-800-529-8167
Excerpted from OAG Frequent Flyer, January 17, 2003