Translating body language signs in different cultures

August 30, 2016 11:52 am

“No more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words”, as Ray Birdwhistell has stated, an American anthropologist who examined body language. Indeed, body language plays the most important role in communication between people as even people who do not have any language in common can finally understand each other. Body language is the only universal language and it can be easily understood by everyone. However, its interpretation can vary sometimes, depending on the cultural background of each “speaker”. The same gesture in a country can convey a totally different meaning in another. It is crucial, thus, to be aware of the different meanings body language has in different cultures and shed some light on 10 signs which can result in misunderstandings and “faux pas”.

1_sitting Sitting: In Japan it is considered as disrespectful to sit cross-legged, especially in the presence of someone older or more respected than you. Moreover, pointing the soles of your shoes or feet at someone is also offensive in parts of the Middle East. That is also why throwing shoes at someone is a form of protest and an insult in many parts of the world.
Cropped studio portrait of young couple face to face in profile Eye Contact: The degree of eye contact that is considered acceptable varies from country to country. Across Latin America and Africa, extended eye contact is seen as a challenge whereas, in the U.S. and Western Europe, it shows you are taking an interest in what someone is saying and is regarded as a sign of confidence. In the Middle East, eye contact beyond a brief glance between the sexes is considered inappropriate.
3_handshake Greetings: While handshake is accepted as the norm pretty much worldwide, a too firm grip is seen as aggressive in many parts of the Far East. Cheek kissing is another common type of greeting in most European countries, however, the number of kisses varies from country to country and it can be easily misunderstood by someone who is not familiar with this kind of saying “hello”.
4_OK The “OK” sign: Circling your index finger and thumb in an “OK” sign is a very offensive gesture in Brazil, Germany, Russia, and many other countries around the world because it is used to depict a personal part of the human body. The same gesture in Japan means “money,” and in France it signifies “zero”. Of course, the OK sign isn’t offensive everywhere; however, it is not OK to use in some parts of the world.
5_shake-nod-head Nod and Shake (Yes and No): In Bulgaria the nod means “No” and the shake means “Yes”. Quite confusing, no?
6_Victory sign V for victory or peace sign: This gesture with your palm facing inward in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and several other countries throughout the world, in essence means “Up yours!”
7_thumbs-up Thumbs-up: While this gesture in most cultures indicates a job well done, in Australia, or the Middle East essentially means “Up yours!”. The thumbs up gesture can also create some real problems for those who count on their fingers, as in Germany and Hungary the upright thumb is used to represent the number 1, while in Japan it represents the number 5.
8_open hand Open hand: This gesture is formed by opening your palm with your fingers slightly apart and extending your arm toward someone and is insulting in parts of Africa and Asia, Greece, Pakistan, and in several other countries.
9_bow The bow: Even though a bow in most countries might be translated as subjugation of the one who lowers his head, in many parts of the Far East it is highly regarded in everyday interactions. Especially in Japan, it is the most common greeting and it reflects sincerity, respect and graciousness, while an improper bow hints at a lack of education and maturity.
10_pay Gesture of payment: In Mexico if you pay by leaving your cash or credit card on the counter, one can think that you don’t respect the person enough to have contact with him/her. It is preferred thus to place your cash or credit card directly into the hand of the person you’re dealing with.


There is, of course, one unique, positive and powerful gesture, not culturally patterned, which is used worldwide with the same translation: the smile.





Written by Anna Manolaki

Study Visitor at TermCoord

Student in Multilingual and Multicultural Communication




“Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Body Language: Not Giving Offense When Working Abroad”. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

“Gestures To Avoid In Cross-Cultural Business: In Other Words, ‘Keep Your Fingers To Yourself!’”. The Huffington Post. N.p., 2013. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

“Body Language Of The World: A Traveller’s Guide To Avoiding Faux Pas”. NewsComAu. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

“Ray Birdwhistell”. Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

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