Travellers Tales – Body Language
It has been said that the spoken word only makes up about 7% of communication, so when researching abroad what you say with your body language is more important that what you know of the local dialect. Body language isn’t universal, though, so we thought we’d share some insights we’ve gained over the years about what gestures to use – and which to avoid – to make yourself understood, or avoid a cultural ‘faux pas’.
Chinese numbers – Don’t be alarmed if when trying to buy something in China the vendor crosses his fingers to make an X sign. In many countries this might mean no but in China it is the symbol for ten. All numbers up to ten have their own hand symbol, so learn the symbols as you won’t be understood counting your fingers!
Thumbs up – universally seen as a positive symbol in Britain, if you find yourself wanting to congratulate someone in West Africa or Latin America be careful with this one as for some people it can mean the same as sticking your middle finger up at them!
Don’t shake your head at me – while researching in Mumbai we were disconcerted when briefing our research partner, she kept shaking her head. Although we realised this is an affirmation in India, rather than the reverse, it still takes time to get used to.
Nodding off – In Japan the cultural importance of not ‘losing face’ means that you have to take smiling nods of agreement with a pinch of salt. Again, when checking for understanding with respondents we couldn’t take their smiling nods at face value. Also watch out for this when asking for directions, they’re all too keen to help even when they can’t!
Shaking hands in Brazil – Be careful when you’re introduced to women in Brazil as offering your hand to shake is often seen as far too formal and cold. It’s custom to kiss females on the cheek, but if it is man to man then it’s a firm handshake. Important to remember this one to avoid coming across as ‘standoffish’.