Hopping the Pond
In the last twenty years or so, a global economy has developed, along with a sense that the world isn’t the big, mysterious place our forefathers believed it was. Not only are you likely to cross international borders at some point, you’re very likely to know at least one person who has relocated to this country from some far-flung place. The desire to accept and understand each other is admirable, but it can be a difficult—if not impossible—task to accomplish if folks from different cultures don’t understand one another’s body language.
The crux of the issue is that many nonverbal cues reveal a culture’s underlying value system. For example, you don’t go around touching heads in India, because the top of the head is believed to be the dwelling place of the soul. You don’t rely on eye contact in Japan, because staring into the eyes is a sign of disrespect, and the Japanese culture is in many ways based on reverence. Even much of America’s culture has its rules, believe it or not. American men are supposed to refrain from openly leering and yelling suggestive come-ons to women walking down the street. But this kind of behavior is common in many Latin American countries and isn’t intended to be degrading to women.
Knowing what to expect in terms of body language from another culture helps to eliminate countless misunderstandings, some of which can lead to serious issues like bigotry and/or ethnocentricity.
Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, take the time to find out what kind of body language is acceptable and what’s deemed wildly inappropriate in the region you’re headed to. (Check out Bodytalk by zoologist Desmond Morris. He describes some 600 gestures from around the world—enough to see you safely through your travels and back home again!) You’ll have a better trip if you make an effort to behave like a native instead of making the conscious decision to stand out like a sore thumb.