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Body Languages – The way they are interpreted across cultures

Body Languages – The way they are interpreted across cultures
on April, 01 2014

There are certain body languages and gestures that we are accustomed to. For instance, when greeting an older person, we need to do certain movements to show respect. When being acquainted with a person for the first time, we also screen our actions and words to create a positive impression. However, even if there are efforts showing how polite we are, these gestures might be interpreted otherwise and considered rude depending on who we are talking with. Simple hand gestures or eye contact may be misinterpreted since they have different meanings in various cultures.


For Americans, this is a normal thing to do especially when introduced to someone. The handshake may be a little firm and will be pumped quite a few times. In India, the length of handshaking may even go further than just a few seconds. When two people start conversing, they might still hold hands for a while. In France and in some European countries, it is even common for people to shake hands many times a day even if they have already met. However, in Japan, this gesture might be considered rude especially if it is your first time to speak with a person. The best thing to do is to bow to show respect.

Hugging and Kissing on the Cheeks

In Southern Europe, this is pretty common especially in informal settings. Men and women, even of the same sexes, hug and kiss each other especially if they are already comfortable with each other. However, in other European countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, hand shake is preferred by men. In the Middle East, this is considered totally inappropriate especially for men and women who are not married. In most Islamic countries, only women kiss each other on the cheek. Men may also kiss each other on the cheeks, but for men and women, even a handshake should not be made. There are other countries that are far more liberal. Men or women may kiss each other on the lips to express happiness or excitement.

Eye Contact

In many cultures, this is done to show interest in a conversation. In the US, when you keep an intermittent eye contact, it shows that you are listening to the person talking to you. In most Arab countries, it is considered a sign of trust if you have extended eye contact with each other. However, in most Asian and African countries, extended eye contact signals a challenge and must be avoided. In Japan, eye contact should not be done as it is deemed awkward. There are even some cultures in which women should look down when talking to men as it would be impolite if they look at men straight in the eyes.


In most cultures, this is a big no. Thus, to be safe, it has to be avoided. In some sects of Judaism, a man can only touch his wife in his lifetime. In Japan and England, touching is not done too often. However, in some Latin American countries and Asian countries like the Philippines and Thailand, touching is common. It is an expression of compassion or showing signs of comfort when talking with someone. Most of all, never touch someone on the head. In many cultures, this is considered really offensive. There are also those who just don’t want to mess their hair up.

Body Hygiene

Though this seems like a personal thing, it could also be cultural. There are those who are used to constantly brushing their teeth or taking a bath on a daily basis. However, in other cultures, this is not usually done. There are also those who are not used to anything that stinks at all. Yet, in other cultures, strong smells are quite common and must be tolerated. Maintaining body hygiene is easy when you always want to be clean. The difficult part is how not to react to someone whose body hygiene is really poor based on what you are used to.

Hopefully, this information will help you as you face other people in your next conference or when traveling to another country.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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