Beware of blunders: How body language affects intercultural communication

  • 2017-05-02
  • Verena Striebinger

© Anna Lassonczyk

We convey much more information through our body language than we might think. Posture, facial expression and gestures as well as the tone of our voice affect our communication – and particularly in intercultural exchange. 

We communicate a great deal of information without actually speaking. But we are often unaware that the sound of our voice, our posture, our facial expression and the look in our eyes are very expressive. Especially in intercultural communication, body language is very important. If we make mistakes in this area, we run the risk of sending the wrong signals to our counterparts, which can lead to misunderstandings that could have larger consequences.

“In conversation, a large part of the conveyed information is communicated through posture and tone of voice. However, most people underestimate this,” says Anna Lassonczyk, Germany-Alumna and expert on intercultural communication. Her writings on this subject provide numerous techniques for successfully employing body language, especially in intercultural communication.

Body language is often employed unconsciously. Its effect always depends on the context and is based on the interpretations of the counterpart. If you would like to use body language, for instance to make a lecture interesting or be successful in negotiations, you should make sure that your body language is appropriate for what you are saying. This will make it seem authentic. Otherwise, you could even end up saying the opposite of what you intended to.

INTERCULTURAL SPECIFICS OF BODY LANGUAGE

Body language is especially important in intercultural communication between people from diverse cultural backgrounds. “In these cases, it is easy to blunder,” says Anna Lassonczyk. As an intercultural trainer who has spent a few months in every corner of the world, she can quote many examples:

“There are many different areas to consider. The first that comes to mind is the relationship between proximity and distance. In Japan, for instance, you should keep a much bigger distance to your counterpart. Specific areas of the body may be taboo in some cultures. In some countries, it is the left hand, in others the feet or the head; in these countries, you should not even touch a child’s head. Hand gestures are another potential source of trouble and can cause unintended offence.”

The intensity of the gaze, the proportion of talking and silence, the differences between men and women, dress codes and many more are among the distinctions that can vary from culture to culture. “Disregard and a lack of knowledge can easily lead to misunderstandings or failed business transactions,” says Lassonczyk.

INTERCULTURAL SENSITIVITY IS A KEY QUALIFICATION

“The world is becoming a global village. That is why I consider sensitivity for intercultural specifics an important key qualification for professional success,” Anna Lassonczyk explains. In her opinion, extensive intercultural training is necessary, rather than just concentrating on body language.

One possibility is a course that prepares participants for an assignment abroad. “I always suggest that the participants’ partners also take the course. After all, the person who is sent abroad by their company will be at work all day long. Their partner, however, will be the one who comes into contact with the new home country’s society a lot more.” Lassonczyk knows that these postings are often unsuccessful because accompanying partners don’t manage to settle in and get homesick.

A few basic suggestions:

  • Try to become familiar with as many specifics of the new country as you can before you move there.
  • Once you have arrived, observe the new culture for a while before you act.
  • Find a local person you can trust to give you critical feedback.

So-called “Cross Cultural Trainings” can also be a useful kind of preparation for international business relations, says Anna Lassonczyk: “In these courses, the focus is not on a specific country, but rather on the basic skills for working in intercultural contexts”, she explains. “For instance, the course deals with how to build trust with a business partner from a foreign culture and how to avoid typical misunderstandings.” Because an awareness of potential mistakes in intercultural communication can already help to get many elements right.

EXTENSIVE RESEARCH ON BODY LANGUAGE

“However: In intercultural communication, too, body language is responsible for first impressions – and there is never a second chance to make a first impression!” says Anna Lassonczyk. Scientists have been researching this topic for many years. “There is extensive research on body language”, Lassonczyk explains. “But an awareness of its significance is becoming ever more important in our globalized world.”

So, how can I find a good provider in the field of intercultural preparation and body language training? “It is a booming industry”, Lassonczyk knows. “I suggest asking your friends and colleagues and to follow personal recommendations. In my view, it is important that the training is holistic and sees the person as whole. You should get an impression of your own personality during the training. And the coaching should enable you to employ what you have learned in an authentic way.”