No matter how strong your foreign language skills may be – without the ability to effectively interpret body language across cultures, you’ll struggle to understand all the complex communicative details of global business. So how can you learn to make sense of nonverbal cues in different cultural contexts and feel more confident in a range of situations?
You may find yourself looking for checklists of the dos and don’ts on how to respond nonverbally to foreign counterparts. However, that isn’t always the best approach. Sometimes generalizations can seem useful to prepare us for new intercultural situations, but too often they are over-simplified and can easily be stereotyped. One-size-fits-all solutions rarely work and results can be disastrous.
There are only few standards in global body language
Body language varies significantly across cultures. What is considered rude or foolish in one country may be welcomed as warm and friendly in another one. What businesspeople from one part of the world would perceive as arrogant, executives from the other side of the globe may see as healthy confidence. When dealing with people from other cultural backgrounds, both sides should understand that perceived insults are often completely unintentional. For anyone doing business globally it is critical to know which general behaviors to be aware of, and which nonverbal cues can be a breach of etiquette or will cause offense.
Yet, despite the various general rules of body languages for different countries and world regions, there are often subtle nuances in people’s nonverbal communication which are quite personal and may break with the “cultural norm” we research and study for ourselves.
The nonverbal cues you want to pay attention to include:
- Physical distance/proximity
- Eye contact
- Head motions
- Hand and arm gestures
Aside from the body language signals, in order to fully comprehend live, in-person communication between people, there are two more aspects to consider: the actual word-based message that a sender delivers and the tonality of this message.
Many of you are probably familiar with the Mehrabian model according to which our communication is made up the three components words, tone of voice, and body language. Often misquoted and/or misused, Albert Mehrabian‘s model indicates that 7% of our message delivery is the actual words, 38% is the tone of how we say the words, and the remaining 55% is the body language that goes with that delivery. The problem with Mehrabian’s research is that for decades many communications trainers have made it look like the 7-38-55 ratio applies to all forms of communication. However, Mehrabian himself points out that his results “were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”
Learn to recognize congruent communication
Does this mean his model is useless? Certainly not, it simply is limited to specific kinds of messaging. Regardless of the actual percentage ratio, the mix of the three communicative elements (words, tone, body) is a reality. If we want to transmit information across cultures, we need to be mindful of all three. Moreover, global professionals need to be able to understand what constitutes congruence across cultures. Congruence is when what a person says is aligned with how they say it. If your counterpart displays a smile, it can mean approval or support – it can also mean amusement or incredulousness. A frown might represent disagreement or focused concentration.
Ask better questions – your vis-a-vis and yourself
To find out what certain nonverbal cues actually mean you need to become a master at asking quality questions. These questions can either be directed at the people you interact with, or at yourself and your cognitive and intuitive skills of reading behaviors. A quality question during intercultural interactions comes posed without implicit judgement and with genuine curiosity. Consider this scenario for example: You are sharing an idea with another person and she has her arms crossed the entire time.
A poor quality question would be: Why is she so closed off? This presumes that folded arms mean reservedness.
A good quality question could be: I notice she’s sitting cross-armed. What can I make that mean? This allows for different interpretations of the behavior. Whether you ask your vis-a-vis directly or whether you ask yourself how to decode the nonverbal message will depend on your rapport with the other person, on your comfort level, and on how effectively you are able to read body language.
Learn how to decipher nonverbal communication with NLP
An excellent way to improve your ability to read other people’s body language cues is by studying the principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programing (NLP). NLP is an approach to communication and personal development which explores the connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming).
Please check their Facebook Page for current events and specials. NLP work covers a broad spectrum of content and yet it is very personal. Feel encouraged to reach out directly to the NLP Atlanta team via email. If you registered for The Culture Reflections newsletter, we will make you aware of upcoming courses as well.
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