Mind your language (body language)

Making appropriate eye contact is an important element of body language skills

Making appropriate eye contact is an important element of body language skills

The world and it’s peoples interact more than ever at any time in our history of the human race. This makes for an exciting time to explore new views, behaviors, share fashion or musical taste and gather the best of each nation to collaborate with new solutions. Amongst these huge opportunities is the need to understand and respect each other as equals across different cultures. Part of business to business success and working within a global organization is dealing with language.

Why body language matters

We are mostly familiar with the obvious challenges faced when dealing with various languages. My language skills in Danish is an example where, in certain arenas my understanding is high and very capable, however in other specific area’s I am rendered feeling like a lost child in need for clarification very frequently. The same applies to everyone when dealing with the other form of language, that is body language.

Body language is considered to be approximately 55% of communication. This is why we sometimes gain a totally new perspective on someone after we only had email correspondence. We also sometimes become annoyed or confused in what someone has written in an email, only to be clarified as a misunderstanding via a phone call or meeting after. Therefore body language is important to help each other understand what is meant, intended and how different cultures react differently to common behaviors.

Eye contact:

  • Through most European nations, Canada and the USA eye contact is important to express interest and attention. The need for balance to attain intermittent eye contact is most relevant in these cultures.

  • Through large parts of the Middle East, same gender eye contact is important to establish sincerity and trust. However when expanding to many Muslim cultures mixed gender eye contact is most appropriate.

  • In India eye contact is not always made from woman to man.

  • Latin America, Africa and Asia cultures have some variations but a general rule is that extended eye contact is considered a threat or challenge.


Prince Charles meeting members of an African military group

Prince Charles meeting members of an African military group

  • I notice a subtle difference between the UK and Denmark for handshakes so here is a broader rule!

  • For northern Europe a swift firm handshake is the norm at the same time as a smile and eye contact during the handshake.

  • Southern Europe, Central and South America the handshake is longer and warmer.

  • India business environments are changing fast but do not be surprised if a woman does not shake a mans hand and be aware if you initiate this move.

  • Africa is more complex but some nations promote a limp handshake as normal.

  • Islamic nations do not shake the hands of women outside the family.

Personal Space:

  • This has huge variety from person to person and not just regional so I will keep this point short with a note of one exception. For business meetings in China it is fine to have almost no personal space at all. I have seek this been used and tried within negotiation tactics so take heed!

Simply by being aware of difference in cultures will already place you in a head start above many people. I suggest always to gain some swift advise and knowledge through global guide books of social norms for the region you are visiting or communicating with.

An outstanding tool for this process is Globe Smart (no affiliation) which provides great comparison tools for cultures especially when dealing with mixed cultural teams.