SIT ON YOUR HANDS!
Confessions of a multiculturalist…Early in my career, when training immigrants at Bechtel, there was a group of female Russian engineers sitting directly in front of me in one class,. Much to my dismay, their posture was always rigid, their arms extended with hands clasped on the table in front of them, facial expressions stern. Finally, after about the third class I approached them and asked, “Am I not helping you? You seem unhappy.” “Oh no,” they blurted out in unison. “This is the way Russian students show respect to the teacher. We LOVE this class.”
Thus began my own initiation into the world of non-verbal cultural differences, which as a linguist I’d studied only cursorily, and even now do not claim great skill in - Body language is largely unconscious and very ingrained. Though I know better, I still extend my index finger to point or for emphasis - considered rude in many cultures, including some of our own (Joe Biden gets into trouble for this). And I misconstrue my Japanese friends’ lack of ebullience for lack of enthusiasm until I remind myself that they were trained early on to control displays of emotion.
The non-verbal comprises at least 65% of social meaning in conversation, according to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and probably more than that of cross-cultural faux pas. We are well aware that words need translation; we often don’t realize that gestures, personal space, facial expressions, touching and eye contact, to name a few, don’t translate either. What’s worse, what is perfectly innocent in American English may be offensive or obscene in another culture. Gaffes can easily cause unintentional hurt, judgment, embarrassment, severed relationships and loss of business.
The most unlikely personages are guilty of this. Bush Sr., in Australia in 1992, raised his fingers in the “V” sign meaning peace. Little did he know that in the Anglo world that gesture was tantamount to giving his audience the finger! Had he only done it with his palm turned toward them rather than away from them as he did, it would have been a whole different story.
It was understandable. A president cannot expect to be cued about every gesture in every country he visits. Cross-culturalists do usually deal with the subject this way, which is helpful for expats and others who will be exposed to a limited number of peoples. But if Bush had learned Inter-English, he’d have known to simply keep his hands to himself when abroad.
Since Inter-English exists to equip you to make your message clear and effective with anyone from anywhere, one needs only the basics:
- Understanding that non-verbal signals differ from culture to culture;
- Knowing the categories that may cause trouble (see above), in order to avoid them yourself and not misinterpret them in others;
- Becoming aware and in control of one’s own body language (For the most part, don’t use it!); and
- Substituting words where possible (Say “OK” rather than making a circle with your thumb and index finger).
Additionally, don’t trust your instincts in producing or reacting to a difference. When I lived in Israel, Arab-Israelis standing so close to me I could smell their breath alternatively scared me or made me feel hit upon. But if I moved back, they just moved forward. If you do succeed in standing farther apart than about ten inches, Latinos and Arabs will perceive you as cold, literally “distant.” Grin and bear it.
Don’t assume universality about any non-verbal item. Even counting on one’s fingers differs among cultures. The thumb (or index finger) may mean “one” for us; it’s “five” for the Japanese.
Don’t try to imitate them. You’re bound to do it wrong, or find it uncomfortable. When I lived in Mexico, other patrons would purse their lips and make a smooching sound to call a waiter (Imagine!), when they weren’t snapping their fingers for the purpose. There was no way I would do the same, though the waiters didn’t bat an eyelash.
In summary, in Inter-English, sit on your hands instead of using them!