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90% of communication is nonverbal, how do you handle that?

20 May 2022 · Rebecca Lake

Singed Gestures and title

Learning a new language is a tricky business. We study, put the work in, practice by travelling, and sometimes still find ourselves all at sea when chatting with people from other countries.

But as they say, practice makes perfect, and eventually we’ll have studied and practised long and hard enough to feel confident in our new language, which feels great.

I’m sure you can sense a but coming here, and you’d be right. Getting the words right is only half the battle, because experts agree that up to 90% of communication is non-verbal. We’ve put together some key things to remember for you and your business when communicating with people from other cultures.

Nodding isn’t a global sign of agreement

In some cultures, like parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, a single nod of the head can mean no, it’s not always an affirmative gesture, which can make confusing conversations!

Some cultures also swap the meaning between nodding and shaking your head. In Greece and Cyprus, for instance, a single nod of the head can indicate no, almost always combined with a raise of the eyebrows alongside a slight (or complete) rolling up of the eyes.

Eye contact – we all do it differently

In English speaking countries, eye contact during conversations usually lasts 1.28 seconds (I have no idea how this is measured, either), while in Syria it is 4 to 6 seconds. In some cultures, prolonged eye contact can even be considered rude or even aggressive.

Handshakes – the possibilities are endless!

In some cultures, and countries, such as Brazil, France and Morocco, light kisses on the cheek can accompany handshakes, even in business situations. In China, age matters when meeting people, so always greet the oldest person present first. Grip lightly and bow slightly. Avoid eye contact and remember to hold onto the person’s hand a moment or two after the handshake has finished. However, in the Philippines, as you shake hands, you need to look your new friend or colleague right in the eye without bowing. A weak grip, though, is a must.

Some cultures, such as in Thailand, do not shake hands. The person will offer what’s called a “wai,” placing their palms together at chest level and bowing, always try to return this gesture. If you are a man, greet them with “Sawadee-krap.” If you are a woman, say “Sawadee-kah” (both mean hello). Shake hands only if a wai is not offered.

To point, or not to point

In much of the world, pointing with the index finger is considered rude or disrespectful, especially when you’re pointing at an individual. While pointing with your left hand is entirely taboo in some cultures.

In certain cultures, for example, in Germany, you point using only your little finger. Whereas, in India, people often point using their chins, their whole hand, or thumb, and in Japan, pointing is done with the fingers together and the palm facing upwards.

Those living near the Vaupes River in South America have three distinct types of pointing. These are pointing with the lips for “visible and near,” pointing with the lips plus a backwards tilt of the head for “visible and not near” and pointing with the index finger for “not visible” (if the direction in which the object lies is known).

Facial Expressions

The way emotions are expressed outwardly can be quite different from culture to culture. Are facial expressions in distinct cultures the same? Well, yes, there are only so many muscles in our faces, but while the expression may look the same, it doesn’t always convey the emotion you expect.

In Germany and Switzerland, smiling faces are sometimes judged as more intelligent, while in Japan, India, and Iran they can be interpreted as less intelligent. Smiling was not regarded as overwhelmingly indicative of intelligence or otherwise in many places, but most cultures regard it as a sign of honesty, with Switzerland, Australia, the Philippines, and Colombia finding smiles especially trustworthy.

In short, the opportunities to make a misstep are huge when communicating with people whose first language isn’t English. While we’re always aware that we’re probably getting stuff wrong and giving one another plenty of latitude, it’s important to understand at least some of these nonverbal cues, or work with someone who does, to ensure your business relationships get off to the brightest start possible.

Every one of our linguists is a native speaker of their language. They understand cultural and non-verbal linguistic cues better than anyone and have the expertise and understanding to support your business’ move into working in new territories and with new audiences. 

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