By Rachel Rowland ( ABC School’s Academic Coordinator )
In communication, a great deal of meaning is communicated via non-verbal communication. Body language, which is made up of gestures, facial expressions, posture and eye-contact, can convey different communicative meaning across cultures. Problems may arise in cross-cultural communication when speakers use and interpret body language differently. In this article, I will look at some challenges that learners can face and aim to raise awareness of some differences existing across cultures.
Nodding and shaking of the head
The most common way to show agreement in the U.K is by nodding your head up and down. Similarly, shaking your head from side to side indicates that you disagree. However, in other countries, such as Greece, tilting the head first to the left and then to the right means “Yes.” Tilting the head up and back means “No.” Similarly, in Bulgaria and Albania, a head shake means “Yes” while nodding means “No.” People from Saudi Arabia shake the head to say “Yes” and tip the head back to say “No.”
These simple movements and their differences can cause confusion for some students who are living in Britain. Trips to the supermarket, ordering food in a restaurant or simply having a conversation about your favourite film can cause communication issues. You may end up ordering the wrong dish on the menu or agreeing to see a movie you really do not want to see! Getting it right is crucial. Whilst living in the U.K, nod your head up and down to say “Yes” and shake your head from side to side if you mean “No.”
Hand gestures are often used when communicating a message. For example, curling the index finger with the palm facing up is a common gesture used by people in Britain, the United States and parts of Europe, to beckon someone to come closer. However, it is considered rude in China, East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and many other parts of the world.
It is common for people in Britain to show approval and agreement by making the thumbs up gesture. This is also true in the United States, Egypt, Israel and Australia. However, it can have varying messages across cultures. For example, in Brazil, the thumbs up sign means “thanks.” In Greece and Sardinia, the thumbs up sign is similar to giving the middle finger in Britain, which is essentially the same as swearing. Showing the middle finger in Britain is very impolite, will make the other person feel bad and will reflect badly on you.
Students need to familiarise themselves with these differences in order to avoid mis-communication. If your new English friend gives you the thumbs up, they are simply agreeing with you, so please don’t think badly of them.
In Western countries, including the U.K and the United States, maintaining eye-contact with a person shows them that you are being attentive towards them. However, in many Middle Eastern countries, eye-contact between members of the opposite sex, can be seen as inappropriate.
Making eye-contact with someone you barely know in Japan is considered to be rude. In fact, making direct eye-contact with a Japanese person can be seen as aggressive. Students from the Far East, who are living in the U.K, should be aware that it is quite common to look directly into the eyes of the person you are talking with, regardless of the gender or relationship. It is not disrespectful within our culture but is in fact showing the person we are speaking with that we are interested in what they are saying. We tend to assume that if someone looks away while we are talking to them, they’re disinterested and looking for someone else to talk to.
We’ve looked at how body language can have very different meanings in different countries and cultures so you’ll want to learn as much as you can about etiquette and ways of communicating whilst living in the U.K, especially if the cultural norms differ greatly from those in your own country. Being able to understand cultural differences will improve your relationships and greatly enhance your communication skills.