When the weather gets cooler in the Western Hemisphere, people search for warmer places with plenty of activities and sights to visit, including beaches. One of the favorite destinations of Westerners is Asia that offers plenty of excellent sights, a variety of activities and plenty of sun and surf. But are you clued up on the basics of Asian body language? There are many cultural differences that you’ll need to keep in mind as a tourist in Asia.
Asian countries are steeped in traditions, different cultures, age-old beliefs and customs, many of which are not known to foreigners. Every country in the world has its own set of customs and traditions, just like most countries have their own official or common languages. Things like facial expressions, eye contact, and hand gestures are fundamental aspects of communication in any language.
It is important for travelers to understand cultural differences, including Asian body language, facial expressions, and hand gestures. The gestures they are very familiar with and which they accept as normal, may have different meanings in different cultures. In many cases, a foreigner could be labeled rude. In some countries, tourists can get entangled with the law due to what could be deemed as an innocuous gesture.
The best thing to do is to learn them to avoid committing an embarrassing mistake.
So if you are planning to travel to any part of Asia to have a much-needed R&R, here are some things to avoid. Mind your body language and your hand gestures whenever you are outside and among local people in Asian countries.
Some of the common postures and hand gestures are harmless and universally accepted. Others will label you as a rude or uncultured.
Asian Body Language: Hand Gesture Meanings
Body language is more powerful than words. And in Asian countries, unlike Western countries, they have so many expressive ways to convey how they feel. This is why it is important to learn which hand gestures and postures are accepted and which are not across different cultures. Here are the main cultural differences that come into play when it comes to non-verbal communication.
Pointing Your Fingers
When you are in China, see to it that you do not point your finger at anything and at people as this is offensive. In China, this gesture is only done to dogs. If you want someone to come to you, beckon them by extending your hand, palm down and angled towards you. Move your hand like an up and down wave, which is a signal to the person that you are calling him or her.
However, do not be offended when you see Chinese people point at things using their middle finger. That is a common gesture that Asian cultures tend to use and does not mean anything, contrary to what it means in the West and some Middle Eastern Countries.
Another thing you must not do in China is to stick out your pinky finger. This means that something does not make you happy. For the Chinese, the hand gesture is like giving a thumbs down sign.
The V Sign
One thing you should get used to seeing is the younger generation who make the “V” sign when taking pictures. The V sign is made with the palms facing forward. Young people, especially young girls from Asian cultures tend to make this sign as a trick to make their faces look cuter and smaller. It’s a part of the kawaii aesthetics promoted by Japanese girls as a sign of cuteness.
Hands Inside Your Pockets
If you are visiting Japan or South Korea, be sure to keep your hands out of your pants pockets. In some countries this is considered cool but in these two neighboring countries, the gesture makes you rude and arrogant.
Handing Over Your Business Card
If you are doing business in Japan or in South Korea, remember that showing respect to persons of authority or people older than you is very important. When handing out your business card, you should use both hands when presenting the card. At the same time you should bow your head slightly. This is standard etiquette for people doing business in the country. It also means that you respect the person.
Holding a Person’s Gaze – Eye Contact
There is a saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Some people believe that you should look a person in the eyes when you are talking to them and maintain eye contact. They also say that facial expressions speak volumes in nonverbal communication. In some Asian countries, it is impolite to look at or maintain eye contact with the person you are talking to, especially if the person is older or higher in position or status than you. For them, prolonged eye contact it is a sign of politeness.
However, you have to contend with long stares (not necessarily direct eye contact) from Asian people if you clearly look “foreign.” They do not mean to stare. They are only curious about you.
While it is very common among several Western cultures to exchange handshakes as a form of greeting, in different cultures in Asia, there are different ways to greet someone. In Japan, it is more polite to make a deep bow instead of shaking someone’s hand. This is all about respecting the person’s personal space.
Fiji is not in Asia but in the West South Pacific. But if you going to spend your vacation in this island, bear in mind that when a Fijian shakes your hand, he will hold on to your hand for the entire time that you are exchanging greetings. It is considered rude if you pull away.
If you are in India, you put your hands together instead of shaking a person’s hand. When your palms are together as it in prayer, tilt your head down slightly and greet the person with “Namaste” with your hands are close to your chest. Again, it’s all about respecting personal space.
Curling Your Index Finger
Curling your index finger is a gesture for calling a dog in Western cultures. Others unknowingly use the gesture to call someone to come closer. In some other cultures, this gesture is used by a woman to tempt a man.
But if you are in the Philippines, do not make the mistake of doing this gesture, as you may end up with a broken finger or worse, be arrested. It is also considered a rude action in Japan. The gesture means something worst in Singapore. In this country, curling your finger indicates death.
In many countries in the West and in some parts of Asia, giving the ”thumbs up” sign is an indication that you agree or approve something. But it is not the case in Bangladesh. In this country, this is used as an insult.
Touching a Person’s Head
Many parts of Asia, such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China, have large populations of Buddhists. For this religious sect, the head, being the highest body part, is sacred, while the feet are significantly dirty. When you are in these places dealing with other cultures, remember not to touch the head of someone as it is considered invasive. In the same manner, it is considered offensive to show the bottoms of your feet or point your feet at another person.
Culinary Politeness Tips
Mind Your Chopsticks
It’s fun to eat with chopsticks if you’re in China, South Korea or Japan. However, do not make the mistake of sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It is considered bad luck because it looks like a funeral incense and taken as a symbol of death.
Remember to wash your hands before eating – this is something that you are taught early on. While visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and Nepal, eating with your right hand is considered being polite. In these countries, the left hand is used for toilet activities and should not be used to touch food.
In South Korea, China and Japan, it is considered very polite to pour liquor or tea for everyone before you pour one for yourself. Moreover, it is considered impolite to refuse a drink or food. South Koreans offer a person a beer or soju as a sign of friendship, therefore it is considered a personal affront if you refuse to take it.
Blowing Your Nose
In some other cultures, it is acceptable to blow your nose while at the dinner table as long as you excuse yourself and turn away. But if you are vacationing in Japan, China or South Korea where the wasabi or chilies can make your nose runny, blow your nose discreetly and silently as you can. You can leave the table and blow your nose in the rest room or in an area where no diners can see or hear you.
Japanese workers find it insulting when someone leaves them a tip. In many other countries, workers look forward to receiving tips from customers, as it is a means to increase their take home pay. However, Japanese workers take pride in whatever they do and they are paid to do their job well. Therefore, to the Japanese, it is embarrassing to receive tips. It also makes the tip-giver look patronizing.
Refrain from Chewing Gum
It is all right to chew gum if you’re aboard the plane to ease the pain in your ears. But if you are in Singapore, chewing gum is illegal. Spitting gum on the street will cause you to pay a fine of S$500.
These are some of the most important reminders about body language and hand gestures when you are visiting Asia.
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