Subscribe for access to this FREE e-learning mini-course!

Your First Name:

Your Surname:

Your Email Address:


Hamburger menu
bookings:   0333 6000 111
service:       0333 6000 555

The Ultimate Guide to International Body Language in Business

The Ultimate Guide to International Body Language in Business

"Body language is the management of time, space, appearance,
posture, gesture, touch, facial expression, eye contact, and voice.
Your body language determines how people perceive you."

Each of us knows how to use our body parts to send messages but not many of us realise that people in different parts of the world 'speak' different body languages. Humans have more than 700,000 forms of body language: facial expressions, gestures, mannerisms, greetings and degree of eye contact vary greatly across countries.

In today's global business environment, you will likely visit foreign countries or build working relationships overseas. You may work directly with people from different cultures and backgrounds. Improving your level of knowledge of international cultural difference in business can aid in building international competencies as well as enabling you to gain a competitive advantage. Body language training is therefore a great asset to organisations with practical applications to leadership, sales, customer relations, HR and workplace dynamics.

This guide provides insight on how working and communicating vary across cultures, and explains how your culture and language affects the ways in which you think and respond.

The cultural differences in body language are immense, and we have selected just a few to highlight body-language etiquette with surprising differences.

In most societies, a nodding head means agreement or approval. But in some cultures, like parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, a nodding head means 'no.' In most Asian cultures, the head is where spirit resides and one should not touch another's head.

The Eyes
Good eye contact is praised and expected in the West. Strong eye contact is notable in Spain, Greece and Arab countries.

In other cultures, including Asian and African, it is seen as a sign of disrespect or challenge. Finns and Japanese are embarrassed by another's stare.
To what extent it is considered acceptable to be "touchy-feely" varies from country to country. Compare, for example, the famous British "reserve" with the much more tactile conventions and traditions of many Arab, southern European, or Latin American countries.

Do you remember when America's first lady, Michelle Obama, broke royal protocol on a visit to Britain by giving the Queen a hug?!
Shaking hands is the most common form of greeting and taking leave in Western cultures. Asians and Middle Easterners prefer a soft handshake, while in Western cultures strong grips are preferred.
While shaking hands is slowly gaining acceptance in Asia, many Asians still prefer a different form of greeting: a bow in East Asia, or a 'wai' (joining the two hands together) in some Southern and South-eastern Asian countries.
Of all the body parts, the hands probably are used most for communicating non-verbally. While both right and left hands have equal status in the West, the right hand has special significance and the left hand is 'dirty' in the Middle Eastern and some Asian countries.

When you exchange business cards in Japan or China, you are not simply exchanging names that are written on small pieces of card. You are exchanging important human emotions, which can take a business meeting from an ordinary first encounter to a fruitful long-term relationship.
When you present your business card, do it with two hands: you are humbling yourself and asking the other person to accept your card. Same thing when you accept a business card, you are elevating the other person and showing gratitude for receiving their card.
Sitting cross-legged is common in North America and some European countries but it is viewed as disrespectful in Asia and the Middle East where one should never show the sole of the shoe to another person. In these cultures, a solid and balanced sitting posture is the prevailing custom.
Crossed Legs
Some cultures use their arms freely, as in Italy, where people use their arms as a communication tool. Others, like the Japanese, are more reserved and they consider it impolite to gesture with broad movements of the arms. Northern Europeans associate gesturing with insincerity and over-dramatisation.

As you can see, there are significant cultural differences in body language, and knowing how to non-verbally communicate in any particular culture will help you build and maintain stronger international business relationships.

So before travelling to a foreign country for business, it is a good idea to read up about the body language etiquette of that culture. You should also try to dull down your gestures and mannerisms until you've had the chance to observe some of the locals - once you have seen how they use body language, you can subtly try to mimic this behaviour. This will help you to present yourself in an appropriate manner, avoid any awkward situations or accidental offences, and gain acceptance into the culture.

Stay in touch

Back to top
Site Cookies
We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better.

You can change your cookie settings in your browser. Otherwise, we’ll assume you’re OK to continue.

I'm fine with this