It’s impossible to know all of the different cultural differences in body language that you can run into. And trying to abide by all of them is even tougher. If I did, I’d be running around not looking at anyone with my hands in my pockets. Of course, then I would be offending both Turkish people (hands in my pockets) and all of my friends in the States. This is article is a compilation of my research. I apologize if I omit anything or make a mistake – there’s so much information in regards to this subject, and it’s difficult to capture it all. Drop me a line or comment if you see an error or want to add something.
- Eye Contact: In the United States and Canada, INTERMITTENT eye contact is extremely important in conveying interest and attention. In many Middle Eastern cultures, INTENSE eye contact between the same genders is often a symbol of trust and sincerity however, between opposite genders, especially in Muslim cultures, anything more than BRIEF eye contact is considered inappropriate. Additionally, in Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, extended eye contact is considered a “challenge.” The Japanese tend to consider even brief eye contact uncomfortable. And, in some cultures, a woman should look down when talking to a man (thanks to thank Denise Gerdes, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Minnesota for that information).
- Handshakes: In my handshake article Networking 101: You Better Get A Grip and Read This, I talked about the handshake in Western cultures. Between cultures, however, there are differences that could throw you off! For example, in parts of Northern Europe a quick firm “one-pump” handshake is the norm. In parts of Southern Europe, Central and South America, a handshake is longer and warmer – meaning the left hand usually touches the clasped hands, the elbow, or even the lapel of the shakee.Beware that in Turkey, a firm handshake is considered rude and aggressive. In certain African countries, a limp handshake is the standard. Men in Islamic countries never shake the hands of women outside the family.
- Greetings: In America, we have the standard greeting: “Hello, my name is..” with a handshake. At a networking event, chances are persons from a different culture will probably assimilate into everyone else’s style, however, there are other greetings out there of which you should be aware. In Japan, people bow. In Italy, people kiss cheeks. There is a very interesting list over at Bruce Van Patter’s website.
- Personal Space: I get freaked out when someone gets too close to me – and I immediately try to end the conversation. However, in some cultures it is normal to be “in the bubble.” In China, if someone is doing business, it is widely accepted to have NO personal space at all. Strangers regularly touch when standing near each other. On the other hand, some cultures require much more space than in America. Keep in mind, that personal space will differ for everyone based on their upbringing. The advice that I would give, is that if you are unsure, start with your comfort zone, and let the other person move to where they are comfortable.
- Touching:This is a big no-no. It may look okay, but you could be fooled. For example, did you know that in some sects of Judaism, the only woman that a man will touch in his lifetime is the woman he is married to? In Japan, Scandinavia, and England, touching is less frequent. In Latino cultures, touching is encouraged.This may not have a place in this article, but still interesting: NEVER touch a person’s head. This can be religiously offensive. Really, when you are out networking, just DON’T touch – except to shake hands. If you are comfortable, let the other person guide what is appropriate to them.
- Small Talk: It’s tough to make small talk. And to make it even tougher, sometimes it is different in cultures outside of America. There was not much research on this, however, some of my loyal readers were able to help me out. Susanne Ebling of Washington, D.C suggests that in other cultures, just because you are asked “How are you?,” it doesn’t mean that the other person is asking for a full health report. Keep in mind that this is not always a cultural thing. If someone you don’t know asks you how you are, you should never say anything but, “excellent,” or “fine,” or some derivative.Also, James Yoakum from New York reminded me that in America, often it is appropriate to ask what a person does for a living in a conversation. In fact, that’s how most people make small talk — and, in certain situations, it’s completely wrong, which I will discuss in another article. However, what you need to know now is that for many cultures it is inappropriate to ask this altogether. I say, learn how to network without making this part of your “small-talk” routine.
- Personal Dress and Hygiene: I don’t know of any culture where it is acceptable to not brush your teeth. I could be wrong. However, everything else can vary! Some cultures don’t shave – their mens’ faces (or womens’ legs or underarms). Some cultures never wear deodorant and others don’t bathe as frequently. You must be careful to make sure you do not offend anyone. And yes, sometimes odors that are quite odd to you might be very acceptable in another culture.
- Gestures:They mean different things everywhere. Seriously, keep your gestures to yourself. If you want to flip off the business card warrior, it might not have any effect at all if he/she is from a different culture. In fact, in some cultures, it’s used as a pointer. The thumbs-up has all different meanings too. At the peril of destroying my reputation, I am not even going to write about them. Also be careful with the American “A-Ok” sign and putting your hands on your hips.
Conclusions: The two most important ideas to take away from this article is that you know these differences exist and that you treat others how you would want to be treated. Once again, the best policy is to let the other person lead the interaction if you are unsure. That way, you can never be wrong!
My name is Sam Diener. I enjoy bringing you these articles. Please feel free to share with whomever you would like. If you would like to share my work on a webpage, please use an “excerpt” of my work and link here. As for me, I am three months into my job hunt, and appreciate all contact regarding possible opportunities. Please click my “recruiter” tab above for information.
I would like to thank Kellie Bowers for her amazing editing assistance. Once again, any grammatical errors in this post are all my fault because she never misses anything!