Is a smile a universal sign of friendliness and understanding? Does a waving hand always mean, “Hello!”? The answer is no. Just like spoken language, body language varies all the world round. In fact, many travel guides devote small sections to body language – what to do and what not to do – in order to be a polite visitor in another culture. The best professional interpreter are the ones who understand that a person’s body language is every bit as important as the words they use.
But first, what is body language? Body language consists of all the nonverbal cues we use when communicating. For example, you may say, “Sure, I’d love to try some of the chilled monkey brains on toast..,” but the worried frown line between your eyes and your slight backward motion indicates otherwise. Body language is an essential form of communication. In fact, a well-respected anthropologist, Edward T Hall, determined that body language is responsible for as much as 65% of communication, the words we use make up a mere 35%. It isNon-verbal communication can include comprised of things like:
• facial expressions
• vocal tones
• posture and body movement
• eye contact
Now, let’s take a look at how body language can vary from the United States and other countries. If you are in the process of learning a second language, with the goal of becoming an interpreter, learning how body language varies between the United States and other countries will be a critical component of your job.
Nodding your head “Yes!”
When an American nods his head, chin moving up and down, he is either answering yes, or he is indicating his agreement with what is being said. This is not the case in other countries. In Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Turkey, a nodding head means, “No.” This can be difficult to get used to when it’s such an unconscious action and interpretation for us.
A sense of personal space.
In the U.S., most of us have a rather broad sense of personal space. Unless you are familiar with the person, you will probably stand at least 12-inches away from a person you are talking to, in line at the grocery store, or while waiting to get on the bus or subway. In other countries, this “personal space” boundary is considerably smaller. In Tokyo, you may be pressed body to body in public, without anyone feeling uncomfortable. In the Middle East, men who are friends will hold hands in public. Italians, Puerto Ricans and the French are known for touching the people they are communicating with on a regular basis. This can be uncomfortable for those of us who only touch in very close friendships or romantic relationships.
When you speak with someone who won’t make eye contact, or whose eyes dart around throughout the conversation, how do you feel? In our country, we’re taught that not making eye contact can be rude, or is a sign you’re not paying attention to what the other person is saying. However, in other parts of the world, including many Asian and African countries, direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect.
Depending on the country you are visiting, crossed legs, a thumbs up sign, the “ok” symbol, and even waving the hands can range from being offensive to indicating the direct opposite of what they mean in America.
Body language is not universal. The first step to being a good traveler, host, or interpreter is to be sensitive to theIt’s important to be aware of body language norms in the countries you are visiting and be respectful of the gestures you use.