Nonverbal differences between countries

Communication is one of the most important things we use in our lives. Communication means “to share” in Latin. In this article, I will focus on non-verbal communication in different cultures and how they might conflict with each other.

In life we use a lot of non-verbal communication, and there are a lot in differences in how we use it. We use non-verbal communication with physical touch, conversational distance between people, interaction between people of the same gender, and interaction between people of different gender.

Some cultures are more expressive in terms of physical contact than others. For example, in Italy a hug and a kiss on both cheeks is seen as a normal greeting, while in Japan people bow to each other and do not touch. Is it very important for Erasmus students and people who travel a lot to know something about non-verbal communication. The wrong body language can lead to hostile situations.

In Europe it is most normal to shake hands in greeting – in the North of Europe a fast, strong handshake is seen as normal, while in the South of Europe and Central/South America a long and warm handshake is seen as normal. In Turkey a strong handshake is considered rude and aggressive.  In some African countries a soft handshake is standard. In most Islamic countries a man would never shake the hand of a women who is not family.

A funny custom that is typically Dutch is the waving of your hand next to your ear to show that you like what you’re eating. Most of the time we do this while chewing, so we don’t have to open our mouth. Practically no other country has this gesture. Indeed, sometimes this gesture can offend people. It’s better to say that the food is delicious.

The first time I became aware that there might be differences in non-verbal communication was when I was crossing the road as a pedestrian. A car stopped in front of me and I wanted to thank the driver by holding my hand up with my fingers outspread. As I was doing this, I wondered if this gesture was normal in the Czech Republic. After a while I saw other people doing it too. But if you make the same gesture in Greece, they will think you are scolding them.

Finally, eye contact is something what can be misunderstood in different cultures. In most places in Europe, eye contact is seen as sincere and important during a conversation. In Islamic culture, this is less obvious. In some cultures, women and men rarely look each other in the eye, and when they do, it can be conceived as threatening or even sexual. In the Koran it is written that a religious man should look down so as to keep his passions under control. Luckily, this is something that most of us can’t imagine.

Personally, I have never had problems with non-verbal communication between students from different cultures. This also has to do with the fact that when you go abroad, you want to know more about other cultures. Most Erasmus students are very open to other cultures and customs, but if you decide to travel to other countries and especially other continents, it’s a good idea to do some research about the culture.