• Mind Your Body Language – 7 Things To Remember


    We know from Albert Meharabian’s research that as little as 10% of our words communicate. What really communicates with others is our attitude and our body language. This is especially the case when you work internationally. So when you are abroad do you mind your body language?

    What do we mean by body language?

    It’s not just your body. The way you dress or how close you stand to people can also affect their attitude to you. Body language covers: -

    Your eyes > Whether you make eye contact or not

    Your facial expressions > Whether you smile or not

    Your gestures > Whether you use your hands when you talk or not

    Your posture > How you stand or sit

    Your position vis a vis the other person > How close you stand to other people you are dealing with

    Your dress > How you are dressed in relationship to the environment you are in or the event you are attending

    Your accessories > Do you have the right type and quality of accessories?

    Etiquette > What do you do with your right hand, left hand or both hands? Do you bow or shake hands?

    All these things can affect the relationships you have with other people in your own country and abroad. What are some of the practical problems people face?

    Eye contact

    When you are with someone and listening to them, you normally look at them. However, in many countries to look at someone straight in the eye can be interpreted as threatening, challenging or to a senior person even insubordinate. Put a tick against the one that describes your own style:

    1 I prefer to look people in the eye when I talk to them.

    2 I prefer to avoid direct eye contact. I think it is disrespectful.

    3 I look people in the eye but then I look away quickly. I don’t want to seem aggressive.

    4 I worry that people who don’t make direct eye contact are not honest. They are trying to hide something.

    Now think of someone you work or deal with, from your own culture or another one. What is their style? Can you explain why?

    Facial expressions

    When you deal with other people do you smile? Do other foreigners smile when they don’t know you? Some countries see being serious as important. They prefer to smile when they see something funny or when they greet someone they know well. They don’t think it is necessary to smile just because they meet someone for the first time. They often think ‘smilers’ are insincere.

    Can you think of a ’non-smiler’? Maybe it’s not impolite. It’s just their cultural style.


    The way you use your hands, the way you stand or sit and how close you are to other people are all part of your body language. Here’s another quiz. Tick the sentences that describe you:

    1 When I talk I use my hands to emphasise what I say.

    2 When I talk I use a lot of gestures with my hands and arms.

    3 When I am with people I stand or sit up straight.

    4 When I am with people I am very relaxed. If I am sitting down I lean back in my chair.

    5 When I am sitting down I often cross my legs.

    6 When I am sitting down I sometimes cross my legs and put one ankle on my knee.

    7 When I talk to someone I prefer to be close to them.

    8 When I talk to someone I prefer to stay at least one arm’s distance apart.

    Now think about another nationality you deal with? Are they the same or different? If they are different, why do you think that is? Is it possible that your body language is insulting in their culture? Some nationalities think that if you wave your hands about, it may be an indication that you are unreliable or too excitable.

    Another problem is hand gestures. The ‘A OK’ sign of forefinger and thumb in a circle means ‘Great’ in the US but zero or nil in some other countries. The forefinger and middle finger held up with the palm facing outwards means ‘Victory’ or ‘Success’ in some countries. In the same countries, reversing the gesture so the palm faces you is a very rude sign.

    Beckoning, ‘Come here’, is another problem. Using one finger may be rude. It is better the use the whole palm facing downwards.

    Your posture

    Do you stand up straight or do your shoulders bend a bit? Do you like to stand feet apart with your hands on your hips? This can look very aggressive in parts of the Far East.

    When you sit down do you cross your legs? If you are a man do you rest your ankle on your other knee when you are relaxed? If so watch your shoes. Are the toes or the soles pointing at the person you are talking to? In some countries this is an insult.

    Your distance

    Have you noticed that if you are in a crowd on a bus or subway train that you can be uncomfortably close to someone and you avoid looking them in the eye? This is a special situation. In normal situations the distance we stand from each other can be culturally influenced. If I am too close to you, you feel uncomfortable. I am being too familiar. If I stand too far away, you may think I don’t want to know you. When people are too close to each other, one of them may turn away to present a profile. Watch for this. It may be an indication that you are too close.

    In one to one meetings it is interesting to see how people sit in relation to each other. Do you sit opposite the person you are talking to? Do you sit side by side with them in parallel? Or maybe you prefer to sit at a diagonal angle, for example on one corner of a table? Where you sit may reflect your personal comfort zone but it may be culturally influenced as well. Understanding cultural comfort zones is an important part of international dealings.

    Your dress and accessories

    In some countries it is not just about what you are like. It’s about how you look. It is important to be well and stylishly dressed. People will look at you. Are you wearing the right clothes for the occasion? Do they give the right impression? Are your accessories (rings, necklaces, bags and pens) of the right quality? Once again, dressing to feel personally comfortable may not be what is important. What may be important is to look right.


    And that leads us finally to etiquette issues. Do you shake hands at the beginning and end of meetings? Do you give business cards with one hand or two hands? Do you bow? Do you sit down first or wait to be invited? Do you bring gifts and if so what kind of gift is acceptable? Do you start talking about business immediately or have coffee and discuss general matters first? If so, for how long? Countries differ in this respect. See my last blog on SMALL TALK for more information on this.

    Oh, and don’t forget the left hand/right hand problem. In some countries food is never offered or received with the left hand. It is considered unhygienic and polluting. Ask yourself. Why is no-one else eating the food from the plate you just touched with you left hand?


    Before you go to a new country or before you receive visitors, check on the body language conventions. A small adaptation of your behaviour may make the difference between making a good or a poor first impression. After all, remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression!

    You can learn more about body language and practise your business conversation skills in KEY BUSINESS SKILLS published by HARPER COLLINS in December.


    It is probably best to introduce body language skills gradually over an extended course if you have the opportunity. However, if you have just a one or two day training programme, it is a great activity to do after lunch to energise people for the afternoon. Follow these steps.

    1 Introduce the different aspects of body language.

    2 Get the delegates to work in pairs to discuss their own personal views and comfort zones.

    3 Then get them to compare their personal style with the style of the market they deal with.

    4 Get them to practise on each other. With distance and posture, get them to stand up and practise feeling too close to or too distant from each other. One way to do this is to place two people at two to three metres distance and then ask one to walk towards the other. When the other person feels they are close enough they should say ‘Stop’. Measure the distance. What is the comfort zone? Ask the walker. Is he or she happy or would he or she prefer to move closer or farther away? In this way delegates can experience how body language can create empathy or distance without a single word being said.

    5 Finally, ask the delegates to record what they have learned about their own style. When they are with others what will they do differently in future?


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