For those of us who come from direct communication cultures, what we mean is entirely contained in our words when we speak. As such, noticing and then understanding body language can present a challenge. Since we expect our words to be all that matter, we don't necessarily notice or understand the subtleties and nuances of non-verbal language that can communicate more than the spoken words in many cultures. Like most behaviors, you can sharpen your understanding and translating of non-verbal language with experience. Spend time in a café or waiting room and pay attention to the non-verbal communication of others. Try to do this before you have to in a work environment so you can hone your detection skills.

Here are our Top 5 Tips to Decoding Non-Verbal Language:

  1. Pay attention to how silence is used.

    Do people interrupt the person who is speaking (conversation overlap) or do they wait politely for their turn to add to the conversation? In many countries, it is seen as a sign of engagement to jump in when you understand what the other person is saying whereas in other cultures it is rude not to let the speaker finish. Knowing the difference can help you moderate your own behavior to adhere to cultural norms.

    Do people pause before speaking or do they speak immediately when it is their turn? In many Asian countries, pausing for a few seconds before speaking shows that you have thought about what the other person has said. 

  2. Consider how much personal space speakers leave between each other.

    Do people stand about an arm's length from each other or do they stand extremely close? What happens if someone backs away from a speaker who appears not to need a large space bubble – does the person who is trying to increase the distance between the speakers end up trapped or do the two people find a balance where they can both be comfortable?

    Does the distance change if the speakers are of opposite sexes? This behavior is prevalent in the Middle East, where it is common to have very little space when men are speaking with other men, but the distance is much greater when speaking across gender lines.

  3. Observe how tactile communication is.

    Is the greeting different if the people know each other or if this is the first time they are meeting? In some countries, it is common for male friends to greet each other with a bear hug and for female friends to greet with a kiss. Understanding when this behavior is expected can be extremely helpful.

    Do people hold handshakes for a long time? In some cultures, it is common to continue to hold someone's hand during the entire greeting process. If you know this in advance, you won't try to shake off the handshake when you think it should end. It may still feel uncomfortable, but knowing that this is a cultural nuance can help you accept this behavior in the manner it was meant.

    Do people touch each other on the arm when speaking? Do people pat each other on the shoulder or back when speaking? Do people keep their hands within their personal space? 

  4. Observe the use of facial expressions.

    Do people smile frequently or infrequently? In some cultures such as the USA, smiling is expected, whereas in other countries, smiling is used sparingly or only when happy. Knowing when gratuitous smiling is frowned upon can prevent miscommunication.

    Do people raise or lower their eyebrows while speaking? Lowering the eyebrows so that part of the eye is hidden can mean that the person is annoyed or that they are not telling the entire truth. Raising the eyebrow can mean surprise.

  5. Pay attention to the amount of eye contact.

    Does eye contact continue while people are speaking or is it intermittent? In many countries, direct eye contact is seen as a sign that the speaker is telling the truth while in other countries too much direct eye contact may be seen as threatening. Knowing the difference is extremely important.

    Does one person look down when speaking to someone older? In many hierarchical countries, when speaking with someone who is older or in a more senior position, it is seen as polite to lower your eyes or engage in intermittent eye contact as a sign of respect.

Once you are in a work situation, you might also want to consider someone's posture as well as their demeanor. Do people stand tall when speaking or do they slouch frequently? Does someone turn their body away from another when they are angry? Do people cross their arms over their chest as a signal that they do not agree?

The most important tip we can offer is to compare the non-verbal language someone uses to their spoken words so you can see if their response is accurate or a face-saving measure.

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