All Kinds of Language


As you head off on your travels this summer you might be excitedly consulting a phrase book and learning little snippets of a new language. While you are planning your itinerary, take a moment so read up on the other language of your destination country – body language. 

Body language plays a huge role in communication. Imagine this: If on a date, your partner says that they are having a good time, yet constantly checks their phone and sits with their arms crossed, which message are you going to believe? Experts have proposed that body language is responsible for up to 90% of communication. Regardless of what particular ‘percentage’ it plays, body language is often crucial for communicating emotions, intentions, and thoughts.

We usually take in this information stream unconsciously. It’s easy to think that this subcurrent of communication is universal, but body language is also very much a language that is ‘spoken’ differently around the world.

Even if you are terrible at languages, learning the gestures of respect in your destination country can make a world of difference



Specific Gestures


Thumbs Up: The common gesture of giving a thumbs up is not  universally positive – far from it! In Iraq and Iran the gesture is considered obscene, similar to giving the middle finger here. While not negative, in Germany and France it is common to use the thumbs up to indicate ‘one’, whereas in the US we generally start counting with the index finger. English speaking countries are generally used to the positive thumbs up. Facebook, with its thumb up ‘like’ button, is also reinforcing the positive association.


Check please!: When dining in Japan, request the check at the end of a meal by raising two fingers crossed in an ‘x’. This mimics one of the symbols in the word ‘shime’  〆(しめ) which means ‘end.’ Increasingly westernized, younger Japanese people also mimic writing in the air to ask for the bill.


Greeting: Customary forms of greeting vary greatly around the world. Most Latin Americans and continental Europeans greet friends with kisses on the cheek. Some Asian and Middle Eastern countries also kiss on the cheek. The number of kisses ranges from one to eight! The number can also vary within a country based on level of familiarity. Gender also plays a huge role. In Arab countries men exchange kisses, but would not kiss a woman in greeting. Try to follow the lead when it comes to these greetings – and don’t worry too much if you mess up!




Personal Space


The idea of personal space varies widely between cultures. In Northern Europe, North America, and Asia, people generally keep an arm’s length of distance when speaking to an acquaintance. These regions are called ‘non-contact cultures’ because any physical contact is generally avoided with strangers.

A recent study covered by the Washington Post found some interesting threads throughout cultures. As per stereotype, South Americans do require less personal space than those from Asia. The study sub-divided personal space bubbles between loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers. In doing so they found that Romania, for example, loved ones could keep a distance of 1.6 feet (as in the US), but strangers were to be kept at 4.6 feet. For an American used to a personal space of 3.1 feet for strangers, this would seem extremely far!

In Saudia Arabia the distance preferred between loved ones (3.2 feet) is the same as the preferred distance for American strangers. And the cozy Argentinians only require 1.3 feet from loved ones, and 2.5 feet from strangers.

Strangers standing too close in any country might be perceived as aggressive or pushy. Particularly if you are a woman and the stranger is male, the distance might also seem threatening. Likewise, if you are from a ‘contact culture’ the distance a new friend is keeping might register as aloofness. In reality, they may feel completely at ease and happy to keep talking.