Communicating in a foreign country is often a tricky business. Regardless of whether you’re a monoglot tourist on a weekend break, or a seasoned international traveller with half a dozen languages under your belt, there’s always a chance you’ll end up lost for words in front of one of the locals.
Faced with these unfortunate circumstances, we typically fall back on something that we assume all human beings have in common: body language. We reason that no matter how the concepts are communicated verbally, certain gestures are universal. After all, surely everyone can say yes and no, can count and express satisfaction and dissatisfaction, without recourse to the spoken word?
Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely true. Body language, like verbal language, varies from culture to culture, so many gestures actually take on radically different meanings once you cross an international border. As a result, the unwitting traveller can quite possibly land himself or herself in hot water by neglecting to consider the non-verbal cues they deploy abroad.
Here at London Translations, we recently launched an infographic on the subject: Mind your body language when doing business abroad. In this guide, we’ll be discussing in a little more depth which gestures a person should avoid if they’re looking to make the best impression in another country, regardless of how innocuous they might be in anglophone culture.
The thumbs up
The ‘thumbs up’ is one of the most useful gestures in the average person’s body language arsenal, for obvious reasons – it’s recognised in much of the world as a sign that everything is OK, which comes in extremely handy when a language barrier arises and one party needs to assure the other that they understand, accept and appreciate the other’s solicitations. One might be forgiven for thinking the gesture is universal, having been used in Roman gladiatorial combat – according to popular myth, anyway – two millennia ago, right up to the Facebook Like today.
Putting your thumbs up in the Middle East, however, has very different connotations for locals. Here – as in a few other places, such as parts of West Africa and Sardinia – the gesture is more or less equivalent to erecting one’s middle finger back home. Travellers in these regions, therefore, are advised to avoid the thumbs up at all costs.
In Western countries, eye contact is associated with a wide range of positive attributes. A person who maintains line of sight with a conversational partner is said to demonstrate confidence, whereas a person who fails to do so might be accused of lack of interest or dishonesty. This holds true in all kinds of interactions, whether a business meeting or on a date.
Once again, however, the tables are turned in other cultures. In many Asian countries, as well as parts of Africa and Latin America, prolonged eye contact – from men and women – is considered confrontational, aggressive and disrespectful.
The OK sign
While it’s not as commonly used as the thumbs up, the OK sign – wherein the tip of the index finger makes contact with the thumb – is sometimes used by anglophones to signify satisfaction. In other cultures, however, it has a wealth of different connotations, many of which are far less positive.
In a number of central and southern European countries, including France, the gesture means ‘zero’ – something that might be interpreted as ‘worthless’ in certain contexts. Further south, in Greece and Turkey, it has even more offensive implications – these countries, among others, feel the gesture represents an orifice with no place in polite conversation.
The handshake is a common greeting around the world, but not all cultures have the same expectations in terms of etiquette when two people make physical contact for the first time. In western countries, we’re often told that a firm handshake is far preferable to a limp one, which can seem distant and insincere. In China, however, weaker handshakes are the norm; the two parties are also encouraged to hold one another’s hands for a little longer than the initial shake, which is said to foster trust.
Bear in mind that there are also places in which handshakes should be avoided entirely. Take Saudi Arabia, where any kind of physical contact between members of the opposite sex is considered improper.
The devil horns
Finally, while it has a limited range of uses compared to some of the above, it’s worth pointing out that the heavy metal fan’s gesture of choice is also liable to cause offense used out of context abroad.
The devil horns are particularly popular in the US, where the gesture is associated with rock music and the Longhorns football club. Travel to some Mediterranean countries, however, and it turns into a slight on the honour of the recipient’s wife. Furthermore, according to Allan Pease’s Definitive Book of Body Language, the gesture was used by American football fans in the Vatican to celebrate a 1985 Longhorns victory. They ended up getting arrested, suggesting the signal’s satanic connotations are sometimes taken more seriously than one might think.