Understand these 4 methods of non-verbal communication for your intercultural interactions


Non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communicationBecause communication is a cornerstone of business activity, every effort should be made to ensure that communication with people in a target market is clear and easily understood.

Cross-cultural communication presents challenges that are not always faced in home markets. This is because of cultural filters—perceptions formed over long periods of time—that affect how the world and our environment are understood.

Particular cultural filters have been influenced by past experiences and societal influences, as well as by ethics and morals instilled by family, religion and peer groups.

These filters determine what is viewed as appropriate or inappropriate, but are not necessarily transferable across cultures because formative influences differ from culture to culture.

To be effective internationally, it’s important to be aware that one’s cultural filters might not be relevant or acceptable in a particular foreign market.

  • Attempt to enhance communication by avoiding stereotypical presumptions
  • Check to ensure that foreign counterparts have understood key communication aspects
  • Try to learn the foreign language over time so as to reduce reliance on interpreters
  • Experiment with, but do not necessarily adopt, local mannerisms and means of communication

There’s more to communicating than speaking or writing

By definition, communication is the exchange of ideas and information between people. A large part of this process involves non-verbal communication that consists of body movements, gestures, facial expressions, touching, eye contact, tone of voice and others.

Every culture receives and interprets non-verbal communication in a different manner. To avoid unintentionally insulting someone, it is important to understand the cultural aspects of non-verbal communication in foreign environments.

1. Gestures

The improper use of gestures has caused businesspeople considerable embarrassment in various cultures around the world. For example, if the host of a business luncheon asks how the meal is, and he receives the “OK” or “thumbs up” sign, there is a risk of insulting a great many people!

2. Touching

Touching is a primary form of non-verbal communication. In most cultures, a handshake between two people is a common welcoming gesture and, if not accepted, a possible insult. However, if two men or two women were to walk down the street in public holding hands, the meaning would be perceived as entirely different.

Across different cultures, humans have appropriate touching customs ingrained at an early age. In some Asian cultures, it is quite common for men who are close friends to hold hands. This may be uncomfortable to some, even if they are fully aware of the Asian culture.

Dancing is another aspect where touching differs greatly among cultures. In North America, close dancing and the resulting contact between two people is considered normal and non-sexual. However, other cultures would be horrified by this public display of touching. The reverse is true in parts of Latin America, where couples openly display their affection in ways that would not be acceptable in other parts of the world.

3. Facial expressions

One common expression in Canada is the term “face-to-face communication.” It implies that we will be communicating with others in person rather than by phone, e-mail, fax and so on. It could also serve as an explanation for how much communication is expressed through facial movements.

Watching children interact with each other brings this aspect to light. Children are well versed in the meaning of facial communication from a very young age. They growl, smile, frown, stick out their tongue, squint and pout all the time, understanding each other without any formal education in this area.

Within cultures, facial expressions may be interpreted in a similar manner—but across cultures, misunderstandings can easily occur.

4. Space

The space we maintain around ourselves reflects a desire to control who gets close to us and under what circumstances. Ideas about appropriate distance vary from culture to culture and are symbolic of the society’s style and tone.

For example, people from some African cultures stand quite far apart, while people from the Middle East who are of the same gender are likely to stand close to each other, yet frown on public displays of affection between men and women.

On the other hand, Americans with European backgrounds are somewhere in between. The exact distance depends on the type of relationship they have with the other person—the more personal the association, the closer they stand to each other.

This is more than just an interesting sociological observation.

Body language has practical business ramifications. Proper distance should be maintained in circumstances where workers, colleagues or clients are in danger of feeling emotionally or physically threatened by the invasion of their personal space.

It should be noted that the sense of security or threat associated with personal space can be at the subconscious level, and may be difficult to assess or gauge effectively.

What should be done when people meet who have different interpretations of body language? Should an effort be made to “speak the same language”—that is, match their movements and ideas about space, touching, eye contact and gestures, or should one simply try to avoid doing anything that might offend? The answer depends on the relationship between the parties and how their body language differs.

For example, if one is speaking with someone who stands close and touches their arm during conversation, it would be unwise to try to match this behaviour. Instead, one should observe the behaviour, but not back away or rebuff the touch—unless, of course, it is inappropriate—and be reassured that this closeness most likely shows this person’s desire to communicate.

Conversely, when the other person stands at a distance, one should honour this difference by modifying one’s behaviour accordingly.

The reason for this distinction is that erring in the direction of too much intimacy can be far more damaging than appearing a bit reserved.

This content is an excerpt from the FITTskills Global Business Environment textbook. Enhance your knowledge and credibility with the leading international trade training and certification experts.

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About the author

Author: Ewan Roy

I'm a Digital Marketing Specialist for the Forum for International Trade Training (FITT). My background is in writing and research, and I am passionate about communicating new ideas and telling stories that matter to you.

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