Body Language and Common Gestures Across Different Cultures

by Rhonda Martinez

Perhaps, you've noticed that what you say is often not as important as how you say it. When writing, you need to choose the appropriate tone, while face-to-face communication requires you to not only choose the right intonation but also to make sure that your facial expression and gestures won't damage the meaning of your words.

No matter what language you speak, nonverbal communication is very important. You should make sure that your words, gestures, and facial expressions are synced because otherwise, your message will be mixed.

There are many unique cultures in our world. People speak different languages, and nonverbal communication also differs dramatically in various cultures. Therefore, if you learn foreign languages or communicate with people from other countries, it's important to know these differences to make sure that such communication will be as effective as possible, eliminating any misunderstanding.

Here are some examples of how body language is used in different cultures.

Eye contact

Eye contact is one of the key aspects of nonverbal communication, but it may also change its meaning depending on who you're talking to. For instance, in Western countries, if you maintain eye contact, it means that you pay attention to what another person says. However, in Japan and some other Asian countries, eye contact communicates disrespect and aggression. In Japan, many kids are taught to avoid eye contact and to look at a person's neck instead.

"Eye contact can also be considered awkward in Finland. In Muslim countries, maintaining strong eye contact is a positive sign, but only among people of the same gender," added Tyler Smith, language specialist and writer at Legit Writing Services.

Moreover, if someone looks at you and you don't look back, it can be considered disrespectful. Eye contact between men and women, however, is considered inappropriate.

Thumbs up

The thumbs-up gesture is widely considered a sign of approval. In Western cultures, you can give somebody a thumbs up if you agree with them, if you want to encourage them, or if you simply like their outfit, car, dog, etc. However, in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Iraq, this gesture is very offensive. Giving a thumbs up to an Iranian means the same as showing a middle finger to an American.

Thanks to social media and Western movies, the meaning of this gesture in the Middle East slowly changes, but some people may still be offended by your thumbs up. This gesture also means "one" in Germany. If you want to get one beer at a German bar, you should show the waiter your thumb, because Germans start counting with the thumb. If you show your pointer finger, this will actually mean "two."


Bowing is very common in many Asian countries, including China, Japan, and Korea. Of course, bowing may also be used in Western countries. For example, musicians or actors may bow after their performance. However, in Asian countries, bowing is one of the main elements of etiquette, and it is used in different everyday situations.

For example, you may bow to simply say "hello," or to express gratitude. You may also bow to apologize. The more respect you want to show, the lower you should bow. You can also demonstrate how serious you are by keeping your head bowed. The rules of bowing may vary depending on a country and its region. Moreover, these rules may also vary among different generations.

Head shaking

In Western countries, when you shake your head, it means "no." However, in India and some other parts of South Asia, the way you shake your head can change the message completely. In these cultures, tilting and shaking your head side-to-side means "yes," and the faster you do it, the more certain you are. However, multiple shakes from left to right may also mean "no."

You may also tilt your head from left to right when talking to people to demonstrate that you agree with them and pay attention to what they say. If you're mostly shaking your jaw, it can mean that you're not sure about something, or "so-so." At the same time, turning and shaking your head from left to right means "no." A lot depends on a particular region and the context. In India, head shaking has a whole variety of meanings.

Crossing legs

Sitting with your legs crossed is a normal thing in Europe or America. However, in Japan, it's a sign of disrespect. Besides, you may offend somebody by showing your feet. Showing your feet or soles of your shoes is also considered rude and insulting in the Middle East. For instance, throwing shoes at someone is a very common sign of disrespect and aggression among Middle Eastern political protesters.

Wrapping Up

Most of our communication happens without words. The way you move or look at somebody can tell more than your words, so it's important to know the differences in body language when communicating with people from other cultures. We hope that these facts about nonverbal communication will help you avoid awkward situations and make sure that others understand what you mean.

About the writer

Rhonda Martinez is a content writer and a preschool ESL teacher. She has a passion for writing and educating children of all ages. In her free time, Rhonda likes to unwind with a good book or to explore the outdoors.


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