Is Body Language Different Across Cultures?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

What is her body language telling you? (Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Crossing arms, eye contact, leaning forward. They all are simple gestures, but actually they are the ‘vocabulary’ of a larger unspoken language known as body language, and one in which we, as humans, all share. But do we? Social scientists, psychologists, and linguists have been studying whether body language, or communicating non-verbally through gestures and/or movements, is universal. What they have found is, while all humans use body language as a critical part of communication in conjunction with spoken language, not all gestures are viewed the same.

This is important considering that many language and psychology experts feel we convey the majority of how we feel through our body language that includes tone of voice and facial expressions. In fact, a whopping 93% of our communication is non-verbal, while only 7% is comprised of words. The face alone can make around 250,000 expressions and there are 5,000 distinct hand gestures. Researchers agree that universally recognized across cultures are six human emotions: anger, surprise, sadness, happiness, disgust, and fear. These are suggested by facial expression and vocal intonations. When these emotions are associated with gestures, one can typically understand the message that is being transmitted.

Call Me Gesture - David Castillo Dominici

A pantomimic gesture for “Call me.” Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

In its Linguistic Anthropology category, features three contributors who explore the question, is body language universal? It has been argued that to a certain extent, it is otherwise there would have been no development of communication between cultures that don’t share a common language. However, these select gestures are considered to be more pantomimic, or pantomimes and are designed to be understandable.

When meeting someone from another culture for the first time, which regional gestures are appropriate and which are offensive can be hard to figure out. As a language learner, one must consider this non-linguistic side to communication. Certain gestures will not only vary greatly from society to society, but may vary within those societies according to gender, age, and status. Sam Diener of Stuff for Success, a business website, compiled a list of eight common body language gestures and how they may deviate according to culture. Anne Merritt for The Telegraph warns that “hand gestures are culturally relative.” She discusses gestures, the use of silence, touch, and eye contact.

In effort to improve the transmission of and receiving messages, one must be mindful of social customs. The key is to understand that there are countless cross-cultural differences and some of the most innocent or widely used gestures in your culture may be completely inappropriate in another. If possible, try to prepare by researching acceptable gestures of a particular culture before you are ready to communicate. This is especially important if you are using a foreign language for business negotiations or traveling to another country for an extended stay.

It is reasonable to assume we all make mistakes, or at times are completely unaware of or forget which gestures are correct. Most people are cognizant of when someone is not from the area and will generally overlook the behavior. One of the best things is to observe others around you. This will provide important clues on what body language is acceptable or not.

Was there ever a time you misunderstood the body language of a person from another culture? Or have your gestures been misunderstood when you traveled to another country? We’d like to hear your story!


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype










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