Hands, feet, face: the cultural differences in body language

By Katie Stone

Imagine for a moment that you’re being introduced to someone for the first time. How do you greet them? A handshake? A hug? The “’sup bro” chin raise?

Most Kiwis would probably go for a friendly handshake. But in some cultures, the simple act of proffering a hand - and the intensity of one’s grip - can mean much more than “hello”.

Body language is complicated. Physical touch, eye contact, stance, and facial expressions can be interpreted in many different ways. These interpretations can play an enormous role in cultural relations. In fact, your body language can help or hurt how you interact with or lead others.

By Katie Stone

Imagine for a moment that you’re being introduced to someone for the first time. How do you greet them? A handshake? A hug? The “’sup bro” chin raise?

Most Kiwis would probably go for a friendly handshake. But in some cultures, the simple act of proffering a hand – and the intensity of one’s grip – can mean much more than “hello”.

Body language is complicated. Physical touch, eye contact, stance, and facial expressions can be interpreted in many different ways. These interpretations can play an enormous role in cultural relations. In fact, your body language can help or hurt how you interact with or lead others.

Communication has a lot to do with cultural differences, and the way in which certain body language is perceived may come down to whether a culture is high-context or low-context. In fact, social scientists believe it could be one of the most important influences on cultural difference.

A high-context culture is one in which the rules of communication are most often transmitted through the use of contextual elements, such as body language, tone of voice, and social status. These things are not explicitly stated but are simply ‘known’. In other words, a message is understood both verbally and nonverbally.

People of these cultures look for meaning in facial expressions, handshakes, and gestures. According to some experts, most people in high-context cultures have the same level of education, as well as a shared ethnicity, religion, and history, and are therefore more inclined to think in a similar way.

Examples of high-context cultures include Mediterranean, Slavic, Central European, Latin American, African, Arab, Asian, and American-Indian.

A low-context culture, on the other hand, is more likely to transmit information explicitly by actually stating it through both language and rules. Communication is much more direct because people say exactly what they mean, reducing the risk of confusion. Spoken and written words are more precise. Here, experts explain that low-context cultures tend to focus on the individual, rather than the group as a whole, so messages must be basic enough for every individual to understand.

Most Germanic and English-speaking countries – the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand – are described as low-context cultures.

In short, high-context cultures place more emphasis on non-verbal communications, while low-context cultures tend to favour written communications. But it’s important to point out that no culture is wholly high-context or low-context: every society has elements of both. Even in many low-context cultures, family gatherings may be high-context. At the same time, communication may also be affected by other factors such as geographical regions, relationships, gender, age, and the situation itself.

So, what does that mean for how body language is received around the world?

The handshake

Shaking hands seems like one of the most natural ways to greet someone. But there’s a lot more to this common gesture than many people may realise.

For a start, the firmness of a handshake varies from culture to culture. In the Western world, a strong handshake is usually associated with confidence and authority. In Turkey and many parts of the Eastern world, however, a firm handshake may be perceived as aggressive. Islamic men never shake hands with women outside their own family.

Throughout central and south America, handshakes tend to be warmer and last longer. The left hand is often used to touch the clasped hand. In some African countries, a more gentle handshake is the norm.

The bow

Bowing is the traditional means of greeting someone in East Asian countries, particularly Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Bowing is also used as a gesture of respect, with bows of varying degrees used for different situations, apologies, and gratitude.

In Thailand, the bow is known as the wai, and is performed with the palms together at chest level. However, hands are not used in Japan.

Bowing is also used in Cambodia and Laos (the sampeah), Indonesia (the sembah), India and Nepal (namaste), although it is now more common for people from East Asian countries to greet non-Asians with a handshake.

Smile
Photo: Daniel Nebreda, Pixabay

The facial expression 

A smile is understood in any language – but other facial expressions can be interpreted in many different ways.

A study from the University of Glasgow found that the six basic facial expressions – happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness – are interpreted differently by different cultures.

In high-context cultures, facial expressions and gestures have much greater significance when conveying and understanding a message, which is important for a receiver to know.

A similar study published in the journal Nonverbal Behavior found that in Germany and Switzerland, people who smile are perceived as significantly more intelligent. But in Japan, India, and Iran, a smiling face is interpreted as significantly less intelligent than those who don’t smile. Interestingly, in Australia, Switzerland, the Philippines, and South America people believe that a smile makes someone more trustworthy.

Experts have also found that there are seven main facial expressions that are considered ‘universal’ and recognised all over the world. These include:

Happy – Uplifted corners of the mouth, tightening around the eyes, raised cheeks.
Angry – Lowered brows, widened eyes, teeth bared (or lips pressed together).
Sadness – Downturned corners of the mouth, furrowed brow.
Surprised – Arched eyebrows, raised eyelids, whites of eyes exposed, opened mouth.
Fear – Slightly furrowed brows, wide-open eyes, opened mouth.
Disgust – Lowered eyebrows, curled upper lip, wrinkled nose.

Peace sign
Photo: Chhumvichhouk Rounh, Pixabay

The hands

People all over the world use their hands when speaking, explaining, emphasising, or just listening. But gestures can vary enormously between cultures, which makes them one of the most easily misinterpreted forms of body language.

The ‘OK’ sign is one such example. In most Western countries, creating a circle with your thumb and index finger simply means ‘OK!’ or ‘All is well!’. In Greece, Brazil, Turkey, and Spain, however, this sign can be a serious insult.

The ‘Come here’ gesture – a curled index finger with the palm upwards – is often used throughout Western countries to tell someone to come closer. Many Asian countries (China; East Asia; Malaysia; Singapore; the Philippines) use this gesture only for dogs and consider it extremely rude. In the Philippines, such a gesture may even result in an arrest.

The eyes 

In New Zealand and in many other Western nations, we’re encouraged to look someone in the eye when we’re speaking or listening to them. Eye contact is our way of showing that we’re being attentive and respectful. Looking away, on the other hand, might be interpreted as our listener being distracted or uninterested.

Throughout the Middle East, eye contact has many different interpretations. When two people of the same gender are speaking, eye contact is usually more sustained and intense. Sustained eye contact between people of opposite sex is viewed as highly inappropriate.

The situation is even more complex in many countries within Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In China, for example, unbroken eye contact may be considered aggressive and confrontational. In Japan, staring another person in the eye is considered challenging. Looking away is a sign of respect, especially when speaking to bosses and elders. Children will also look away when being spoken to by an adult.

The touch

Low-context cultures tend to value personal space, which often means we are less inclined towards physical touch. In the US, Germany, Japan, UK, and New Zealand, touching is less frequent, and we prefer larger amounts of ‘personal space’.

In the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Italy, Latin America and South America, touching is much more acceptable and common. Personal space is less of an issue. Greeting someone with a hug is common in high-context cultures, especially the Middle East, Latin America, and southern Europe. These cultures also tend to stand more closely to one another when speaking, and may touch one another during a conversation.

In India and much of the Arab world, it is customary for men to hold hands or even kiss one other in greeting. This affection between men is simply a display of friendship totally non-sexual, although it does not extend to women.

The most ‘non-contact’ cultures include Northern Europe and countries in the Far East
(China; Japan; South Korea). Here, physical contact beyond a handshake is very uncommon, and often unacceptable.

In some parts of Southeast Asia and in India, touching someone’s head is taboo (forbidden).

Low-contact cultures also tend to respect ‘personal space’ by standing at a greater distance and avoiding physical contact.

The legs and feet

As if your face and hands weren’t enough to think about, the way you sit can also cause issue.

In Japan, crossing your legs in certain situations may be considered rude in business situations, or in the presence of people who are older or of high importance. Otherwise, people in Japan and Korea both tend to eat in the cross-legged position as a means of assisting digestion.

Showing the soles of your feet is highly disrespectful in most Arab, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist countries. Feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body because they touch the dirty ground. Pointing with your feet can be seen as highly offensive, and care should be taken when crossing legs. Hitting someone with a shoe is seen as the ultimate insult.

As the world becomes more globalised, there is no doubt that cultural interpretations and perceptions of body language will change. There may already be many situations in which the above examples are no longer applicable, but there may also be many circumstances where they are strongly upheld.

Like any language, body language is often best understood through immersing yourself in another culture. And, when in doubt, ask!