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Beware of blunders: How body language affects intercultural communication

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.

“I know how it feels to have to find your bearings alone in a foreign country.”

Germany-Alumna Anna Lassonczyk came to Germany when she was 19 years old – on her own and with only one suitcase. Today, she has travelled across nearly the whole world and has been working free-lance for seven years – mainly as an intercultural trainer. She gives in-house seminars for many renowned companies and teaches intercultural communication at Universität Passau, Universität zu Köln, UBI in Luxembourg and internationally at the German Chamber of Foreign Commerce. 

See Anna Lassonczyk‘s profile in the Community

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.”

How would you estimate the significance of body language?

The Akademie für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (Academy for international cooperation, AIZ) of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) stands for skill development and learning in the context of international cooperation. It focuses on the topics of communication, cooperation, management and leadership as well as vocational training. 

Academy for international cooperation (in German only)

Are you and your partner leaving for a new country, starting a very special period of your lives? GIZ will support your preparation for your stay abroad with an extensive range of courses, to help you to eventually return home after a successful assignment abroad with unforgettable and enriching experiences. 

AIZ: Occupation and family international (in German only)

Preparation, networking, follow-up: These are the core elements of the advanced training option “Key qualifications for international cooperation”. In addition to the established courses, the course programme for 2017 also includes new and advanced options that deal with the most recent developments and trends in international cooperation. 

AIZ programme (in German only)

Preparing for an assignement abroad at the AIZ 2017 (PDF, in German only)

Video: Preparation – Networking – Follow-up

May 2017


Cara M Vera
11 September 2018

I traveled to Izmir, Turkey with a friend and stayed at her family's home. On the way, I experienced serious nausea and arrived literally green and weak. My friend cautioned me to try to behave as if nothing was wrong, then to rest after greeting her extended family at her home. I followed her advice and later realized that the first impression was so important because they had not previously had a native-born American stay with them and might have misunderstood if I had hidden away or had shown a very sad countenance. Making an effort to smile set a positive tone for my visit; we all cried at the end of the month when it was time to leave because we had really bonded since day 1.

Avalyn A. Cahulogan
6 May 2017

So true. One must be sensitive to the emotions of others, hence great are those who practice tact and compassion. More so, when one is also tolerant to the insensitivity of others.

It is prudent to learn the culture of other countries or cities before one visits such a place, especially in Asia where societies are still traditional and conservative. For students studying abroad, normally orientations are given to make them be aware of the cultures of host countries. Same to those who would be working in other countries. By knowing the culture and understanding the body languages of others would make one confident and at ease in making new friends, likewise easier also for the others to reach out and accept you as a new friend.

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