Body Language in Different Cultures

by Sam Diener on October 5, 2009

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.

    1. 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).
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. 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!

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  • David Schwartz

    I definitely agree with the “let the other person lead”. i just returned from a half-year culture/language study in Eastern Europe, and I certainly had my share of cultural clashes before I became accustomed to my environment. I would add (which goes along with following their lead) behavior in a restaurant setting. If you are meeting with a potential business partner, it is important to see how they treat wait staff. for example, we as Americans tend to be overly polite with 'please' and 'thank you' as we speak with waiters/waitresses, and we expect them to be working for us to earn a tip. in other cultures, this is not the case. for example, in Russia, waiters earn a regular salary and therefore are not dependent on a tip. this means that they do not feel a need to be overly courteous or attentive. Thanking a waiter for bringing your food is nice, but considered a bit strange with the mentality of “why should I thank them for doing their job?”. Tipping comes into play as well. in america, we expect that 15-20% is reasonable. in other cultures, this isn't so and Americans are seen as 'showing off' when they leave a large tip. i found it best to ask before i entered a situation i wasnt sure about. i think that if you don't know anyone of the local culture, the best people to ask for advice are cabbies and train conductors.

    I have also heard that in China, waitstaff are considered lower class and it is expected that restaurant patrons will talk down to them.

  • sarkasteveny

    Hello Sam,

    first of all, I want to say that learning about different cultures fascinates me. Many times, the differences are very surprising. It's deffinitely important to know some main differences among various cultures.

    What I miss in your article, is a mention about punctuality and perspective of time. I learnt that this is very important to know, when meeting a partner from different culture. For example, in Germany and Northen Europe you should be everytime on time as well as in Eastern European countries (there max 15 min late). If you are late more than 15 min you should rather call that you will not make it on time but you're on the way, doing your best. In South Europe (Italy, Greece or Spain…) they have lots of time and meetings can start even 2 hours after the due time. They are very relaxed and no one minds it. If you don't know this, you can make a big mistake by arriving late or you destroy potencional perspective relation by not understanding the word mañana.

    Also, behaviour during the business meeting differs largely culture from culture. In Denmark, Germany, Austria… the meetings are set up for finding a solution. When it's not done they are nervous. All what was said during the meeting they take seriously as agreed solution. In France they set up meeting for saying that there will be another meeting and on that meeting they will set up a date for third one where they will talk about the issue. when they think out some solutions they still need to have another meeting for aproving it finally and only then they start to take any action….

    So such things are very important to know, in order not to become mad when dealing with a partner from different culture

    What do you think?

  • psymmonds

    Very interesting – and valuable when dealing with people of other cultures. For instance, while in the military, I learned that the lower you bow when greeting someone in Japan shows greater respect. Similarly, there are cultures (Turkey, for instance) where you should never use your left hand to shake hands. When the Germans signify a number with their hands, they start with the thumb, whereas we start with the forefinger. So, if you raise your forefinger and ask for a beer, you liable to get two. The thumb indicates one, the forefinger two. One could go on and on. The thing to keep in mind is that, while we may find them odd or amusing, failure to observe some of these customs can offend deeply. Very few Americans bother to learn these things. It's no wonder the phrase 'Ugly American' came into being.

  • bethmcdonough

    Hi Sam,

    Great job!

    Have you had anyone comment on “the kiss?” I have had several situations where I was extending my hand only to have the gentleman take it and then lean in and kiss me on my cheek. This always takes me off guard and leaves me slightly disoriented (i.e. “What just happened?”).

    Has anyone mentioned experiencing this and, if so, how does one handle this graciously?

  • JohnExley

    I think that always being considerate of others and attempting to make others comfortable is a key to networking and will help in different cultural interactions. Be cordial!

    I'm very interested in your tips on small talk as well. Do you recommend reading current events, knowing intelligent questions to ask, etc.?

  • Sam Diener

    John – that one is ready to be released yet… but it IS coming… Thanks for your comments!

  • Beth McDonough

    Hi John,

    I think your observations about being cordial and considerate are key in networking!

    I defer to Sam, but I think it is imperative to read up on current events! The WSJ has an excellent overview of national and international events on their front page and on their home page on their website. They have recently added a sports sections, so one can keep abreast of what is going on there as well. I also regularly check CNN and MSN.

    If all else fails (usually with a shy person), I will ask people to tell me about where they work(ed), where they grew up, where they went to school…etc., most people like to talk about themselves and will open right up.

    I am sure that with your focus on being cordial and considerate, you will be a successful networker!

  • Sam Diener

    I am going to have to defer to any woman that would like to answer this one….

  • Sam Diener

    I cannot agree with you more. Certainly these are differences that one should know. And while I certainly am not ignoring their importance, they were outside the scope of the article. I generally was focusing on differences that would be obvious in a “first” meeting setting in a social or networking event. The elements you addressed would generally be found in a more formal business meeting or possibly interview scenario.

  • M. Malone


    Great introduction for the American tourist, business people or anyone traveling beyond their comfort zone. All too often, I have witnessed amazing and embarrassing moments of culture, clash here and abroad.

    Your conclusion sums it up best – Treat others the way you like to be treated but you must be open minded, flexible and respectful. Books have been written, classes taught, yet you're still not going to grasp it all the first time.

    Remember, you have two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally and you should make a decent first impression.

    M Mulone

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  • Susan Feigon

    Nice article and of course it is the tip of the iceberg. If you are traveling on business or personal always do your research. Don't ever expect others to meet you with American standards.

    On another note, those that are doing business with Hassidic Jews should already know the rules. If they don't, call a rabbi, any rabbi. They all know the orthodox rules even if they are reform.

  • Susan Feigon

    Nice article and of course it is the tip of the iceberg. If you are traveling on business or personal always do your research. Don't ever expect others to meet you with American standards.

    On another note, those that are doing business with Hassidic Jews should already know the rules. If they don't, call a rabbi, any rabbi. They all know the orthodox rules even if they are reform.

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  • koppula ravali

    what about postures

  • Juanita Halepas

    Very interesting article. I am a Court Interpreter and I can tell you body language is very significant in any court setting. Thanks for posting.

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