Everyone sends signals through body language, gestures and posture. The movement of the hand as someone underlines words, crossed feet under the table, raised eyebrows are all sending messages. If you can understand body signals you will better understand your opposite numbers at talks or negotiations and you will strike better deals.
For instance, if you are sitting in a meeting and the person speaking leans back in his chair and starts delivering a determined sounding speech, you will find most people in the room no longer interested in what he is saying. When a speaker does not make eye contact and fails to notice his partner or others in the room, they fail to take full notice of him. The laid-back posture signals disinterest in your partner's views. The legs stretched out and astride, convey the speaker's feeling of self-confidence and superiority, all of which triggers a sensation of frustration or aggression among those listening. In any case, it distracts them.
Sometime when you are waiting for an airplane flight and you have some extra time, observe the people around you and how they behave. Watch the way they walk, their gait, how they gesture in a conversation, the way some people cock their head or let their shoulders droop, how they glance and especially what they do with their hands.
During one course I took many years ago, a participant stood up and exclaimed in business none of this mattered because we were dealing only with numbers and facts. The instructor explained that was wrong because everywhere people live, we are always dealing with emotions and emotions are easy to read.
What someone says is only part of the truth. Equally important is the look with which he says it, whether he gestures with "emotional left" or his "rational right" hand to accompany his words.
Does one's partner have drooping shoulders, a posture that betrays he's carrying too heavy a burden, or does he walk in too big strides indicating that he's all in favor of long term, large-scale planning with little interest in detail?
Relaxed upper arms always inspire confidence, as do opened hands that appear to be handing out something, while other people sitting with their arms folded on the table are trying to keep some information or emotions to themselves.
Even movement of a finger has significance. Every movement of the mouth speaks volumes to an expert.
The experts recommend that you spread your arms. That is a gesture of openness and instills trust. One participant at this course was concerned the trust might easily be misused. The instructor replied not everyone he meets is a thief, but yes, he does occasionally have things stolen from him.
I took this course 30 years ago and cannot repeat everything I was told, but over the years I found that gestures in different countries were most important for me to know in my international work. Here is a recap of some peculiarities of gestures from around the world.
- In Argentina, people converse closer than in the US. They often are used to putting one hand on the other person's lapel or shoulder. Restrain yourself from backing away or else the other person will probably step forward to close the distance again.
- The Argentines always maintain eye contact. This is very important and is something North Americans may find difficult while speaking to a person at close quarters.
- In Argentina a pat on the shoulder is a sign of friendship.
- The gesture North Americans use to mean "so-so" (twisting the flat open hand from side to side) is common in Argentina and means the same thing.
- In Argentina a sweeping gesture beginning under the chin and continuing over the top of the head is used to mean "I don't know" or "I don't care."
- Argentines hold their thumb and middle index finger touching (as if holding a pinch of salt), one taps them with the index finger to indicate "hurry up" or "a lot."
- In Argentina avoid placing your hands on your hips when speaking. This is confrontational.
- In Argentina cover your mouth when yawning or coughing.
- It is impolite in Argentina to sit on a ledge, box or table. Sit on a chair.
- In Argentina it is equally impolite to place your feet on a table. Place them only on footstool or rail.
- Contrary to what we commonly do in North America, it is impolite in Argentina to eat in the street or on public transportation.
- The thumbs up sign we use for hitchhiking in the US (also means OK) is considered rude in Australia.
- The Aussies are very suspect of men who are too physically demonstrative to other men.
- For a man to wink at a woman in Australia, even when friendly, is inappropriate.
- Aside from handshakes, there is no public contact between the sexes in Malaysia. Do not kiss or hug a person of opposite sex in public, even if you are husband and wife. Contact between people of the same sex is permitted. Men may hold hands with men or walk with their arms around each other. This is interpreted as friendship.
- In Malaysia, pounding one's fist into the palm of the other hand is considered obscene.
- In Malaysia, it is impolite to point at anyone with the forefinger. Malays use a forefinger only to point at animals. Even pointing with two fingers is impolite among many Indians. When you must indicate something or someone, use the entire right hand (palm out). You can also point with your right thumb, as long as all four fingers are curled down. If the fingers are not curled down, older Malays would interpret a fist with the thumb and little finger extended as an insult.
- In Korea, show respect to older people by touching you left hand, palm up, lightly to your right elbow when shaking hands or passing objects such as food
- If embarrassed, a Korean may laugh excessively.
- In Korea, blowing your nose in public is considered bad manners. If the hot or spicy Korean food makes your nose run (and you know it will), get up and move away from the table before blowing your nose.
- In Turkey the US gesture for "no" wagging your head from side to side is a Turkish gesture for "I don't understand." If you mistakenly make this gesture in response to a question, your host will assume you do not understand the question and will try to ask the question again in another language.
Remember, "How you say it might be as important as what you say." See you next month!