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Body Language and Personal Space

Certain gestures or types of touching have different meanings in different cultures. Since non-verbal messages are rooted in culture they can easily be misunderstood if either the sender or receiver is culturally unaware. Gestures or touching that Americans accept as normal may be inappropriate or taboo in another culture. Similarly, we may feel put off or uncomfortable by what is acceptable in other cultures. Personal space also varies depending on the culture (see question below).

Every gesture sends a message that is understood by those within the culture. For example, it is not uncommon for an American to motion to someone, especially in a noisy room, using a bent finger to call another person to come closer. Among Americans this would be acceptable behavior, but to many Africans, Asians and Latinos this would be interpreted as impolite and rude, a way to call a dog. In a typical work setting, use of this gesture could result in the employee being insulted and the supervisor being confused about the employee’s negative “attitude” without ever understanding the cause. (Of course, many times those from other cultures are quickly able to deduce that what is rude or offensive in their own culture is acceptable in American culture, thus averting a misunderstanding.)

In the example above, neither party is wrong nor at fault, but a cross-cultural misunderstanding exists nonetheless. Such a situation requires openness and a trust level that allows an employee to tell the supervisor that such a motion is impolite in his/her culture. Equally important is that the supervisor not take a defensive stance but use the experience as an opportunity for cross-cultural learning as well as an opening to reinforce a willingness to respect and explore the cultural differences. Although many non-native English speakers try to learn American cultural norms, cultural behaviors are reflexes that take time to change.

Question: Why does my employee look away from me when we talk?
Eye contact is an action that has culturally specific meanings. For example, in some Asian cultures it is disrespectful to look superiors in the eye. A “superior” may be someone who is older or someone who holds a higher position of authority. Gender may also be a factor. A Muslim woman may avoid eye contact with men because she was taught that eye contact is impolite and unacceptable. You may feel that such an employee is not paying attention or untrustworthy when in fact he or she may be demonstrating respect.

Question: Why does my employee stand so close to me when we talk?
Americans stand in a 12 to 15-inch circle of personal space. If someone stands closer than this, it is usually uncomfortable. In other cultures, however, this circle differs in size. In Asian cultures it is usually larger, resulting in people standing farther away from one another. In Latin or Middle Eastern cultures, it is often much smaller. As always, however, individual differences do apply.

Question: My employee refuses to shake hands when she is introduced. Why is this?
Just as personal space allowances differ from country to country, so do rules governing touch. Americans tend not to touch one another (when compared with other cultures), but touching of the arm, shoulder, or upper back is generally accepted in American culture. This rule applies between people of the same or opposite sex, married or unmarried.

In Middle Eastern countries and some Asian countries, however, there are very different rules about what kind of touch is acceptable. In some Asian cultures, for example, it is neither unusual nor necessarily a sign of sexual preference for women friends to hold hands in public. The same may be said of men in Middle Eastern cultures. However, in many Asian and Middle Eastern societies, touching someone of the opposite sex may be carefully avoided.  A Muslim woman may be reluctant to shake hands with a man, even as part of an introduction (see also Cultural Issues: Gender). Some Muslim women have adapted to American handshakes by extending their hands covered with their dress. For further insight into rules governing touch, note your employees’ interactions with those from their own culture.

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