Body Language Across Cultures

Body Language Across Cultures

Do your nonverbal messages attract or offend?

By Linda Allen, CC

Body language is your first language. Although we all “speak” it, we don’t always understand its subtleties and nuances. It’s true that our actions speak louder than our words, and sometimes our body language “shouts” so loudly it overrides our message and confuses our audience.

According to research conducted by Ray Birdwhistell, up to 250,000 facial expressions have been recorded as communication messages. Add the rest of your body, and you must master a huge physical vocabulary to communicate your message properly. Whether you are a speaker with an audience or simply meeting someone for the first time, your body language can attract or offend and ultimately determine the future of the relationship. A lot rides on that first impression, and it happens quickly.

Within 30 seconds you can make a charming or alarming impression, according to Gloria Starr of Global Success Strategies, Inc. A communications and leadership coach and advisor, she says that people generally decide within mere seconds of meeting someone whether or not they like that person.

Charismatic people use welcoming body language, such as a smile, direct eye contact and good posture. Their movements are slow and fluid, which makes people feel comfortable. They introduce themselves immediately, shake hands and make conversation by asking open-ended questions.

In contrast, behaviors that create barriers between people include: avoiding eye contact, crossing one’s arms, and making rapid, nervous or jerky movements and hand gestures. Much of our body language is unconscious. We’re often not aware of what or why we do what we do. Eyes, hands and posture provide volumes of personal information about people. 

Eyeing Cultural Differences
Eyes are the most expressive part of the face. In Western cultures, direct eye contact is the expected norm; it indicates confidence, honesty and trust. In fact, in these cultures lowered eyes provoke a lack of trust. However, in Native American and Asian cultures, lowered eyes are a sign of respect and honor, which Westerners often misinterpret. Always be aware of the body language differences from culture to culture and country to country, particularly when it comes to the messages your eyes might send.

Try to maintain direct eye contact approximately 60 percent of the time. Too much eye contact comes across as staring, threatening or intimidating. If you’re uncomfortable making eye contact in a one-to-one conversation, try these strategies: Imagine an inverted triangle on the person’s face with the base at the eyebrows and the tip at the upper lip. Let your eyes focus in this general area. Another technique is to mentally divide the face into three parts – the forehead, the area from the eyes to the mouth, and the mouth and chin. Let your gaze subtly scan this area.

When speaking to audiences, look directly at individuals and maintain eye contact until you finish a thought. Then move on, choosing several people randomly instead of focusing on one person. Include all audience members, even those at the back of the room.

Eye rolling is a universal no- no. It’s a visual insult and subtle message that indicates disbelief or annoyance. A safer tactic when you feel chagrined is to lower your eyes until your displeasure or frustration passes.

Multicultural communication is ultimately more than meets the eye. When combined with direct eye contact, erect posture gives you an air of authority. Toastmasters’ manuals and training encourage speakers to stand tall and maintain eye contact to project confidence and connect with the audience.

Hand gestures attract attention with their motion and can focus eyes on the speaker. It works well when you pantomime an action or need by mimicking simple gestures. Examples include pretending to write or drink, or cupping your hand behind your ear to indicate you can’t hear. Baton gestures are similar to those of an orchestra conductor to focus the attention of the audience and emphasize points. Symbolic gestures, such as these, are good to use as long as you know their specific meaning for your audience. But be careful! While the thumbs up, the circle- fingered “okay” and the peace sign are positive and appropriate in the U.S., their meanings vary widely from country to country. Although intended to be positive, they can often be considered rude, vulgar and offensive. The best advice is to avoid them when outside the U.S.

Pointing can also be a touchy subject. Avoid pointing at people. Most people – regardless of country or culture – do not like to be singled out by pointing, which carries a negative connotation of scolding or lecturing. Instead, use the entire hand to point at things and for emphasis. 

Mirror the Movements of Others
You can easily establish a connection and rapport with another person. Use mirroring to create a sense of commonality and shared values and interests. As the word suggests, mirroring is copying the body language of another person, but without being obvious, manipulative or insulting. Mirroring can range from copying facial expressions and breathing rate to posture and gestures.

Body language is contagious. You can inspire and empower your audience – or you can discourage, antagonize and even alienate them. In many cultures, it’s okay for motivational speakers to use animated body language and enthusiasm when they want to inspire their audiences. Sports coaches use this kind of body language to inspire their teams. Just be sure such a lively approach is suitable for your particular audience and message.

Speakers who are comfortable with their body language are better able to adapt to a new audience and stage. Their presence, gestures and words claim and control both. A large stage space can diminish a person’s presence, so more movement and larger gestures help the audience focus on the speaker. The savvy speaker always makes gestures fit the topic and tone of the speech, however, and knows that too many gestures distract from the message.

Aaron Malin, a member of Pacesetters Toastmasters in Stillwater, Oklahoma, says, “It’s easy to express myself. I’m a hand-talker.” An international trainer for Stillwater Designs, he says, “I am able to convey a lot of emotion, passion and direction through body language, moving about the stage, emphasizing points with gestures and even some physical comedy when required.”

Malin often uses body language to demonstrate the inner workings of the “Kicker” brand car speakers his company produces. He credits his ease in front of an audience to his mother. “The greatest gift she gave me was self-confidence. Everything else stems from that. Of course, developing speaking ability over the years, that’s another matter, but once you start with confidence, you can do anything.” 

Slowly Learning the Language
For Deke Johnson, a 42-year Toastmaster and retired Oklahoma State University professor, confidence did not come as easily. Also a member of the Pacesetters club, Johnson gives conversational speeches with open, natural body language. It’s as if he is talking with really good friends. “I’m a slow learner,” he confesses with a smile. “I became comfortable by being uncomfortable. It took lots and lots of practice.” It’s obvious the practice paid off – he’s the official Pacesetters mentor for new members.

Johnson suggests speaking from the heart. “Believe in what you present and that will convey sincerity and credibility to your audience. With practice, you can become comfortable when meeting people and create a positive impression.”

Still, practicing and learning more can ensure that you send your messages successfully. Remember, even when you’re not speaking, your body language continues the conversation like a silent partner. You want this partner to work for you and not against you. With study, you can learn how to match your body language to your speech:

  • Be a people watcher. You don’t have to eavesdrop or stare. Just watch their body language and try to determine what messages they seem to be sending.
  • Watch the professionals. Turn the audio down on TV programs or movies and try to guess the conversation and storyline.
  • Make the most of your club experience. Ask fellow Toastmasters to identify any body language that distracts from your speech and message.
  • See yourself as others see you. Practice speaking in front of a mirror, or videotape a speech, to identify distracting behaviors.

Body language is two-way communication. Not only does your audience read your messages, they provide feedback on their attention and understanding. People leaning forward are interested and getting your message. But if people are leaning back in their seats, fidgeting, talking or texting, they’re probably bored or upset, or the speech is too long. It’s a signal to change the message or the pace.

Once you understand that body language – like spoken language – changes from culture to culture and country to country, you can avoid the problems that plague other speakers. You’ll know what might be interpreted as inappropriate or offensive. Just be sure to do your homework. Check sources such as Roger Axtell’s Do’s and Taboos series and the Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands series by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway. And before any speaking engagement in front of a foreign culture, take time to visit with locals from that country to learn their customs – including greetings, and the handling of personal space and eye contact.

Most important of all: Remember that the best and easiest body language to master is a natural, sincere smile. It’s the most universally understood message and doesn’t need a translation! 

Linda E. Allen, CC, is a member of the Pacesetters Toastmasters in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She is a writer, speaker and trainer specializing in cultural awareness, professional and personal development, and leadership. Reach her at