Manners And Body Language Across Cultures
Norine Dresser (Writer) gives expert video advice on: How do I know how to greet someone of another culture?; How do signs of affection differ among cultures?; Which American gestures might be interpreted as obscene by other cultures? and more...
What is 'body language'?
Body language refers to the kinds of cultural differences in the ways in which people use their bodies. But sometimes it's very easy to misread cues. For example, there was a woman I know who was giving examples of active listening as a mode of being a good teacher. And active listening means listening all the way. So she had her students, who were all teachers, role play. One would be talking and the other would be listening. The one who was listening was sitting down, the one who was talking was standing up. The listener in one case, was like this. Now most of us have had a little bit of pop psychology, and most of us believe that when we have our hands crossed in front of us, it means we are resistant to that idea, we are rejecting that idea. And, in fact, when the woman who was seated was confronted about how resistant she was, she says "no, I'm not resistant, that's not true at all, but in Vietnam, when we cross our hands, it means that we're not being, Body language refers to the kinds of cultural differences in the ways in which people use their bodies. But sometimes it's very easy to misread cues. For example, there was a woman I know who was giving examples of active listening as a mode of being a good teacher. And active listening means listening all the way. So she had her students, who were all teachers, role play. One would be talking and the other would be listening. The one who was listening was sitting down, the one who was talking was standing up. The listener in one case, was like this. Now most of us have had a little bit of pop psychology, and most of us believe that when we have our hands crossed in front of us, it means we are resistant to that idea, we are rejecting that idea. And, in fact, when the woman who was seated was confronted about how resistant she was, she says "no, I'm not resistant, that's not true at all, but in Vietnam, when we cross our hands, it means that we're not fiddling and fidgeting and that we are giving you our entire attention." So it was really important in that class, to show that there are different signals, that there are no universal body languages. fiddling and fidgeting, that we are giving you our entire attention." So it was really important in that class, to show that there are different signals, that there are no universal body languages.
How do greetings differ among cultures?
I talked to a man and he had gone to New Zealand, and he was in the airport, and he was so shocked because he saw a man waiting for a passenger to deplane. The passenger came out and he was all dressed in a suit, he was carrying a brief case. And yet when they greeted, they pressed their heads together and their noses together, and he did not know that that is the Mauri form of greeting. That is how they greet one another, but there is a deeper meaning. They are actually inhaling their essence. And it is very much related to what we used to call the Eskimo kiss. But they are really inhaling. In Hawaii, the word that we take as a negative called howly, meaning Americans, and it is kind of negative, but it really means not of the same breath. Because they used to greet that way too. They would inhale one another. I have had Filipino students say that they have gone to see their grandmother, or their grandmother for the first time, back in the Philippines. You know what she sniffed me. And it is the same thing. You learn a lot when you inhale the other person. You learn not so much about hygiene, you learn that too, you learn also about eating habits. Other places they bow. Especially Japanese. This weekend I was at the Japanese-American Museum and I ran into some friends, who actually are Korean. The parents of a friend. And when they saw me, they did the bowing. Other people kiss. Kiss on one cheek, kiss on two cheeks. Sometimes kiss on three cheeks. And you have to say, are they a two cheek or a three cheek person?
How do signs of affection differ among cultures?
In our society we're so homophobic, that if you see two women holding hands, or two men holding hands, you just assume that it is a homosexual relationship, but most other parts of the world it's just the opposite, and I've had students from China in particular tell me how upset they are like two girls walking hand in hand, and then they get upset because then their accused of having a homosexual relationship, and no matter how they feel about it or not it's just such a reversed kind of interpretation.
Why is touching the head considered threatening in some Asian cultures?
Particularly in Southeast Asia, the head is taboo because it's believed that somewhere here resides the spirit or the soul of the person, and it plays out in many different ways. For example, the Hmong people who are originally from Laos have that same belief. There was a preschool here in the United States, and the new teacher had just come, and she had been given a very brief orientation, and she was to teach the children colors and parts of the body. And they had these outlines of the body, and she would say, "Color the hands orange, color the feet purple, color the clothes green, put brown eyes on the face." The children wouldn't do it. "Put a red mouth." The children wouldn't do it. And everything that she asked them to do, every feature to put on this blank face the children refused to do. She just couldn't understand what was going on. Then after class was over, the teacher said, "Oh, we forgot to tell you, the Hmong have a belief that the spirit resides in the head, the head is almost sacred and you don't touch it, and you wouldn't color anything on the head either. It's a very powerful belief, and it was really important because had she not known the belief, she would have thought the children were ignorant, they were rebellious, they refused to follow orders. But once that was explained to her, then it was cleared up. That's another reason why it's important to know multi-cultural manners because it's so easy to misinterpret the behavior of others when you don't have the right background.
Which American gestures might be interpreted as obscene by other cultures?
I laughed the first time that President Clinton was nominated because this was at the convention and at the very end he went like this. And I thought, “Oh Lord, we've just lost some votes in the Middle East” because this is an obscene gesture. In South America, this “A-okay” is an obscene gesture. I had a student from Afghanistan—she was brilliant—and she went to the office at school to see if she had passed the test, and the staff member recognized by her name that she was not American-born, and she wanted to let her know that she had passed the test. So she went like this to her and the girl was so devastated she ran home and cried to her brother. He laughed because he had been here longer, he understood. She was just trying to convey that she had passed the test with flying colors. Pointing is very bad; I have had numerous people tell me. One in particular was a girl who worked in one of the gift shops at Disneyland and a family came in, I think she said from Japan. They wanted to know where the rest room was and she said, it's over there and they became so enraged because pointing was also an obscene gesture. As this is also an obscene gesture. When I was teaching for a while English as a Second Language, I became so self-conscious of my gestures because the students were from all over and it was so easy to offend them. I tried not to use my hands which I ordinarily do. You just have to be very careful.
What might a smile mean in other cultures?
There are many books that say the smile is universal. Yes, it's a universal movement but it's not universally interpreted. For example, Koreans believe that the smile is a sign of frivolity. That if something is important and serious, you don't smile too much. That same belief is held by the Japanese. In the old days, when they would take pictures of our diplomats with the Japanese diplomats, ours were always smiling and the others were not and so people who saw that picture in the newspaper really thought, "Oh, boy, I guess that meeting wasn't a success." They didn't realize that the Japanese were demonstrating how serious a matter this was. And now, that's not so because now they've learned that in order to convey the right feeling and to let them know that it was a successful meeting, they have to smile. So it's very tricky. There are a lot of different meanings to a smile.
Why should I be careful when looking people from other cultures in the eye?
Americans believe that if you mean what you say, you look a person in the eye, and if somebody avoids contact, we interpret that very negatively. So, this is just one example of a teacher calling one of her students up to talk to her and to explain something to the child. The child was misbehaving and it was a girl, and the girl was from Mexico, and the entire time that the girl was in front of her, the girl looked down. And the teacher scolded her and said, "Look me in the eye!" And the girl didn't, and she went home and she told her mother. And this mother was very intelligent and came to school the next day and said, "My daughter did not look at you because she was paying you respect. She has never even looked her grandparents in the eye. And that is a sign of disrespect if she were to look you in the eye." Well, once the teacher understood that, she understood that. But we impose our beliefs on top of that. Now among teenagers, if you stare somebody in the eye, that's an inventation to violence. It's sort of like daring them. It's called "mad-dogging". And if you go to Universal Studio's Universal City Walk, there's a signs that said "no undue staring". So, they understand that by staring, you're just sort of challenging another person.
How does listening posture differ among cultures?
Africans and African-Americans will often look down when they are listening, and look up when they are talking. We do the reverse, we look when we're listening and look away when we're talking, and so they're just opposite, so if somebody looks away or looks down does not mean necessarily that they're disrespecting you or ignoring you, because if you're talking and I am looking down, if I'm talking to you and you're looking down I would think “oh she's ignoring me, she's tuning me out”.
How does physical modesty differ among cultures?
We have some interesting things in our culture at this time that relate to modesty. I noticed it when I was looking for bathing suits online, that you get modest bathing wear for women that are geared to either women who are A, Latter Day Saints, meaning Mormons -- they're more covered up, Muslims -- more covered up, and Orthodox Jews -- more covered up. That's what they consider respectable. In addition to which there is a variation on Barbie for Muslims and Orthodox Jews, and the difference is the clothing. It's much more modest. And it's absolutely fascinating. It's taken quite a while for this to happen, but these dolls now reflect the wardrobe rules for particular denominations. But the Muslim and the Orthodox are practically the same in what they want covered up. You're not supposed to look -- no cleavage. Not much arm. Mid-calf length for skirts and things. It's fun to explore online and see what's available. But basically, in our society, it's for the women. The men less so.