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Body Talk: Gestures are not always universal!

Posted by Deb Muoio

Aug 12, 2014 11:49:00 AM


Catechism classes, as I recall them, were usually followed by attending mass, which I, like many other 10-year-olds, found mind-numbingly boring – and of course, gave us an excuse to talk and fool around. I remember telling my friend how creepy life-sized statues of saints are, and pointed at a particularly nightmare-worthy one, to which my Catechism teacher hissed, “Don’t point! It’s rude and makes God angry!” I, of course, was terrified, and folded my finger under my hand for fear that my punishment would be the loss of said naughty finger. I could not understand why this seemingly innocent gesture was such a faux pas.

What I didn’t quite grasp at the time was that body language, just like verbal language, is not universal. What seems like a socially appropriate gesture in your country may actually be an insult in another. If your job requires you to travel to foreign countries, make sure to avail yourself of a good translator, as well as this handy guide to cultural differences in body language.

What to remember when visiting Asia:

  • Rule 1: Watch your eyes. Eye contact is always an iffy thing. I would rather not stare at anyone, no matter where I am. In general, eye contact is often considered a sign of confidence, assertiveness, and even respect in some countries, but is considered disrespectful in Asian and African cultures - although I suspect it’s a gray area in many parts of the world.
  • Rule 2: Be mindful of your gestures. For Italians (like me), speaking with your body is an art. Even if I wore soundproof earphones (which probably wouldn’t be effective with my family anyway), I would still be able to get the gist of what was being said through body language alone. In the Japanese culture, however, the use of gestures would be considered impolite.
  • Rule 3: Remember to bow. I’m not much of a hand-shaker, mostly because I never know what the right amount of pressure is - which is why I’m glad that in Asia, bows are the preferred greeting.

What to remember when visiting the Middle East:

  • Rule 1: Sit with both feet on the ground. As you sit in awe, gazing at the majesty of the pyramids, you’ll have to curb any tendencies to cross your legs. Exposing the sole of your shoe to someone is considered very discourteous.
  • Rule 2: Fonzie is not cool. A thumbs up sign is considered an offensive gesture (similar to “flipping the bird”.
  • Rule 3: Holding hands is cool. When men hold hands in public (often seen with politicians), it’s a sign of mutual respect.

What to remember when visiting Europe:

  • Rule 1: Yes, that’s a no. Here’s the potential for major confusion: Nodding means “yes” in many countries, but actually means “no” in some parts of Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. I can already see the waiters in Greece scratching their heads as visitors look over the dessert menu (“Does this person want the Baklava or not?”)
  • Rule 2: Hey, it’s not OK. Don’t use the OK sign, even if the food is delicious. It has sexual connotations in some Mediterranean countries.
  • Rule 3: High five no-no. Don’t high five anyone in Greece and Turkey, unless you want to tell them to “Go to hell.”

Want to assess your ability to read people’s body language? Take the Body Language Test

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  • Rugsaken, K. (2006). Body speaks: Body language around the world. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site, January 29, 2014.


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