Body Speaks: Body language around the world

Author: Kris Rugsaken

Each of us knows how to use our body parts to send messages but not many of us realize that people in different parts of the world 'speak' different body languages. A signal for 'yes' in one culture may mean 'no' in another; a gesture for 'good-bye' in one culture can be interpreted as 'come here' in another.


Business people and politicians have long recognized the importance of body language or non-verbal communication; many receive training in nonverbal communication before serving overseas. Since 9/11, airport and transit police have been trained on body language recognition. But training in body language is still relatively new for educators even though most American campuses include faces from different parts of the globe. It is therefore important that educators understand not only how to receive messages through body language but also what messages they may be sending even when they are not talking. Misunderstanding of body language may not only cause a long-lasting embarrassment but also be a life threat.



'Body language,' includes all the communication through the non-verbal channel. This can include how we greet others, how we sit or stand, our facial expressions, our clothes, hair styles, tone of voice, eye movements, how we listen, how we breathe, how close we stand to others, and how we touch others. The pressure of body language can especially be felt in emotional situations where body language usually prevails over words. This article will use the terms 'body language' and 'nonverbal communication' interchangeably.


The Importance of Body Language.


Edward T. Hall (1959), a well-recognized social anthropologist, maintained that in a normal conversation more than 65 percent of social meanings are transmitted through the non-verbal channel. People in other parts of the world, especially Asians, are more perceptive to body language than the North Americans.


Misuse of body language can be an unpleasant or even dangerous experience for message encoders. Consider the following examples:


In 1988, two Laotian men walked into a Los Angeles bar where a singer, who was also from an Asian country, was entertaining patrons. The men sat at empty spaces near the front with their feet pointed straight to the singer. After the bar was closed, the singer followed the two men to a parking lot where they got into an argument about how the men pointed their feet at the singer's face. The argument became fierce when the singer pulled out a gun and killed one of the men.


In 1992, then President George H.W. Bush made a state visit to Australia. People lined up along the roadside to welcome the American President who greeted them with raised fingers in the form of 'V' with the back of his hand toward the onlookers. The following morning a headline in a local newspaper proclaimed that the 'American President insulted the Australians.'


In 1998, a newly married American couple went to New Zealand for their honeymoon. They rented a car and toured until they missed a stop sign. A police officer pulled them over. They explained that they were new in town and didn't know about the local traffic so were given a warning instead of a ticket. As a 'thank you' gesture, the husband gave the 'thumb up' sign. The police officer called for back up and hand cuffed the American man. (A 'thump up' is seen as a rude gesture in New Zealand.)

Understanding Body Language from Head to Toes.


According to Argyle (1978), humans have more than 700,000 forms of body language. This article will give a few examples of how body parts, from head to toes, are used for communicating in different parts of the world. Interested persons can read further from the references given at the end of this article.


Head . In most societies, a nodding head signifies agreement or approval. But in some cultures, like parts of Greece,Yugoslavia,Bulgaria andTurkey, a nodding head means 'no.' In most Asian cultures, head is where spirit resides and one should not touch another's head.


Face . Facial expressions reflect emotions, feelings, and attitudes. While expressing 'true' feeling and emotion is valued in the West, it is prohibited in the East. The Asians, who are taught to practice self-control, are often labeled as 'emotionless' and of possessing 'mixed-up emotions.' Smiling in the East is not necessarily a sign of happiness; rather it signifies 'yes,' 'I don't understand what you said,' or can be a cover-up for embarrassment.


Eyes . While good eye contact is praised and expected in the West, it is seen as a sign of disrespect and challenge in other cultures, including Asian and African. The less eye contact these groups have with an individual, the more respect they show.


Closing eyes . In 1975, former Vice President Walter Mondale was invited to speak to the Japanese Diet. He became irritated when he noticed that more than half of the audience closed their eyes. When the talk was over, Mondale snapped at theU.S.ambassador, 'Why did I bother to come and talk to them?' 'Why, Sir?' the ambassador asked. 'They didn't care to hear what I had to say; they were sleeping.' 'No, Sir,' the ambassador replied, 'they closed their eyes to close out everything else in order to digest your speech.'


Nose . Tapping the nose is more common in Europe than in the United States. It means 'confidential' in England but 'watch out!' in Italy. Blowing the nose on public streets, while seen as an impolite gesture in North America, is a common practice in most Asian countries. This rids the body of waste and; therefore, it is seen as healthy. At the same time the Asians do not understand why the Americans blow their noses onto a Kleenex that is put back in their pocket and carried with them throughout the day.


Lips and Mouth. Kissing is a sign of love or affection in the West. People kiss when they meet or when they say goodbye. But kissing is viewed as an intimate act in Asia and is not permissible in public. In some cultures, such as Filipino, Native American, Puerto Rican, and several Latin American, people use their lips to point, instead of a finger.


Arms. Some cultures, like the Italians, use their arms freely. Others, like the Japanese, are more reserved; in Japan it is considered impolite to gesture with broad movements of the arms.


Hands. Of all the body parts, the hands probably are used most for communicating non-verbally. Hand waves are used for greeting, beckoning, or farewell. The American 'goodbye' wave can be interpreted in many parts of Europe and Latin America as the signal for 'no.' The Italian 'goodbye' wave can be interpreted by Americans as the gesture of 'come here.' The American 'come here' gesture can be seen as an insult in most Asian countries where they use it for calling an animal. Asians call others with a similar hand movement but with their palm downward.


Handshaking is the common form of greeting and leave taking in the Western culture. While it is being accepted in Asia, the Asians still prefer a different form of greeting: a bow in East Asia, a 'wai' (joining the two hands together like in prayer) for some Southern and Southeastern Asian countries. Asians and Middle Easterners prefer a soft handshake. Strong grips are interpreted as a sign of aggression.


While both right and left hands have equal status in the West, the right hand has special significance and the left hand is 'dirty' in the Middle Eastern and some Asian countries. It is best to accept or offer cards or gifts with the right hand or both. The 'O.K.' sign (the thumb and the forefinger form a circle) means 'fine' or 'O.K.' in most cultures. However, it means 'zero' or 'worthless' in France and many European countries. The same signal is an insult in Greece,Brazil,Italy,Turkey, and Russia. A 'thumb-up' sign indicates an 'O.K.' or 'good job' in most cultures but it is an insult in Australia,New Zealand, and in most African countries.


Legs and Feet. Sitting cross-legged is common in North America and some European countries but it is viewed as disrespectful in Asia and the Middle East where a solid and balanced sitting posture is the prevailing custom. In Asia and the Middle East, resting the ankle over the other knee risks pointing the sole of your shoe at another person, which is considered a very rude gesture. One should never point or move an object with their feet in these cultures.




Becoming sensitive to the clues of body language can help us communicate more effectively with students or scholars from other cultures. We can understand what they are saying even when they are not talking. We can sense when students are silent and digesting information, or when they are silent and confused. We can share feelings too strong or too difficult to be expressed in words, or decode a secret message that passes silently from person to person. Body language can help us spot contradictions between what students say and what they really mean. Finally, we can learn to be more sensitive to our own bodies, to see what messages they are sending and to see ourselves as others see us. We are our bodies.


by: Kris Rugsaken

Advising Center Coordinator
Ball State University


Argyle, M. (1978 ). The Psychology on Interpersonal Behavior.London: Penguin.

Axtell, R. E. (Ed.) (1985). Do's and Taboos Around the World. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Axtell, R. E. (1991). Gesture.New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Birdwhistell, R.L. (1971). Kinesics and Context.London:Allen Lane.

Hall, E.T. (1959). Silent Language.New York: Doubleday & Co.

Pease, A. & B. (2004). The Definition Book of Body Language.London: Clays Ltd.

Vrij, A. (2001). Detecting Lies and Deceit.New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Weitz, W. (Ed.) (1974). Nonverbal Communication.London:Oxford University Press.

Wolfe, C. (1948). A Psychology of Gesture.London: Methuen.

Cite this resource using APA style as:

Rugsaken, K. (2006). Body speaks: Body language around the world. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site

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