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Inter-cultural differences in non-verbal communication

Communication is one of the most important tools for people to relate with each other, either at work or in their personal life.

There are two forms of communication: verbal and non-verbal. Yet, people tend to mostly focus on the first one. Non-verbal language is more efficient than verbal language at conveying emotions and attitudes – in interpersonal relationships – whereas verbal language is best suited to transmit information in external events. Moreover, the use of body language is generally an unconscious action and therefore tends to be more reliable and honest than words. It allows us to understand what or how people are thinking and feeling. It is often useful when discerning a lie. Non-verbal communication includes eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, physical contact, physical distance and pitch.

It is relevant to pay attention to the body language of people we are talking with, especially in an international context because this type of communication varies from one country to another. If we want to avoid misinterpretations, it is important to know that inter-cultural differences in non-verbal communication exist. For example, some cultures use body language more than others. In Eastern cultures, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans use fewer gestures and facial expressions than people from Western cultures.

In the West, people from Northern Europe (Scandinavia, United Kingdom, etc.) keep a bigger distance between each other, a lower physical contact and a lower pitch. People from the United States keep a larger distance between each other, while Arabic cultures and Southern Europeans are closer, have more physical contact and a louder voice.

Because inter-cultural differences exist, gestures and their meanings can be differently interpreted. For example, the V-sign (index and middle fingers forming a V) means “Victory” in England, but “Peace” in the Philippines. Russians and Chinese differently count with their fingers. In Bulgaria the “yes and no” nod is inverted. Indians shake their heads from right to left to say “yes”. The Western A-Ok sign has a rude meaning in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. In Indonesia the left hand is considered as impure and cannot be used in particular situations. The Italian signs of “What the hell is going on?” or “What the hell do you want?” express “Wait!” in India. The horn sign, which is popular in the rock and roll culture, actually means “love” in China.

Greeting procedures are different as well. The formal way to greet somebody in the West is to give a handshake whereas a bow is used to greet somebody in Eastern countries. Furthermore, a few countries do the cheek kissing. They are mostly people with Latin origins. Italians tend to kiss two times when French and Swiss people do it three times.

Those differences can lead to confusion between individuals. This has to be properly managed in order to avoid any relationship impairment. People should be open-minded and aware of diversities amongst cultures.

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