Chapter 7 - Body Language In A Multicultural World

The norms of social behavior are determined largely by culture, and as it is now becoming far more common to interact with people of different cultures, many leaders must gain the knowledge and skills to deal competently with individuals whose cultural norms are different to their own. This chapter will consider the topic of culture, focusing largely on the nonverbal signals that seem to be universal to all cultures as well as those that are specific to certain ones - with the caution that what seems natural and proper in one culture may be perplexing and even offensive in another.

(EN: Culture is a massive topic, and I strongly suspect that this will be a very broad swipe. Also, it is often exaggerated. People have become accustomed to dealing with people of different cultures, and tolerant of the fact that "foreigners" or outsiders don't behave the same way and offer them a great deal of latitude. Few are as intolerant or sensitive as some might suggest, and those nations where the culture is hostile and xenophobic tend to refrain from engaging the international community.)


The author understands "culture" to mean the set of shared values and assumptions that determine what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior within a defined nation. (EN: The notion of culture is far larger and more complex than mere geography. While "national" cultures are often the easiest example, there are cultures within a nation and cultures that reach across multiple nations, as well as cultures in which geographic location is not a significant factor.)

For many individuals and companies, doing business is not merely a matter of finding a supplier who can address the basic functional needs, but finding one in whom they can trust and enter into a comfortable business relationship. This is built upon perceptions of behavior, which are often interpreted through the filter of culture. When dealing with a customer or partner of a different culture, be aware that anything that you do that is inappropriate or offensive may be damaging to their willingness to trust and do business with you.

You must also be aware of your own cultural biases when dealing with people of other cultures, recognizing that your default way of reading and interpreting their behavior is based on assumptions that they follow your own culture.

High Context, Low Context

One parameter of cultyure that is of particular interest to nonverbal communication is the degree to which a culture is contextual. Low-context cultures tend to focus on what is assumed to be significant (such as the ideas conveyed by the words a person speaks) whereas high-context cultures focus on peripheral details (not only their voice, gestures, and posture, but also their identify, the situating in which they are speaking, their relationship to the audience, etc.) when interpreting what the message really means.

Americans and Europeans tend to be low-context cultures - which means that people not only focus on the content of a message, but disregard everything else. Many Asian and Middle-Eastern countries are high-context cultures, and in some instances the words that are spoken are of very little interest in communication.

Perception of Time

The author goes into some detail about the way in which various cultures consider time - the degree to which speed and punctuality are considered essential. (EN: It's an interesting stroll through some random observations, but she doesn't related this to nonverbal communication at all, so it seems a diversion.)


Another facet of culture is the degree of expressiveness. Some cultures are very reserved (Japan, Scandinavians, Finns, etc.) and people mask their feelings, keep their emotional displays in check, and seldom speak unless there is a functional need. Other cultures are effuse, and people are very chatty and expressive of emotion, and often speak just to fill silence (Italy, Arab nations, etc.)

This is highly germane to nonverbal communication, as people from more reserved cultures may seem stoic and inexpressive (also disinterested or disapproving) whereas those from more expressive cultures may seem overly emotional and dramatic (and perhaps more interested than they really are).


Informal cultures have a greater sense of egalitarianism: they support a sense of equality and are dismissive of social status or class, and there are not many rules for interacting with other people. In formal cultures, there is a sense of social stratification and more formal rules that govern the way in which members of different "levels" of the social hierarchy are permitted to interact with one another.

Naturally, those from informal cultures find those from formal cultures to be stuffy and their rituals tedious, whereas those from formal cultures find those from informal ones to be brash, offensive, and dismissive of tradition.

Also, because both deal with the amount of respect and deference due to others, the nonverbal communication of dominance or submission requires close attention.

Cross-Cultural Body Language

Some nonverbal signals are unique to a particular culture, others are more universal. This reflects that some nonverbal communication is instinctive or innate (or at least has biological underpinnings) whereas others are learned behaviors that are formally studied or informally imitated.

In general, those signals that are emblematic (have a specific meaning) tend to be culturally derived, but those that communicate emotional states tend to be more universal. The author speaks to some of the facial expressions that indicate emotions such as joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and contempt - these are largely universal.

However, in some cultures people become accustomed to hiding certain emotional states (such as shame) or feigning other emotional states (such as appreciation). It is noted that people are not very good at this - so even when they hide/feign a state, there is often evidence in their expression that indicates their true feelings.

There's a brief mention of "subtle expressions" and "micro expressions" that are diminished in either their degree or the amount of time they are maintained. It's suggested that developing the ability to "read" these expressions give leaders a "distinct advantage" at detecting the true emotional state of others so that they may adjust their own behavior accordingly.

A few words on feigned expressions: people are not as skilled as acting as they think, and it is generally easy to spot a faker. A few tips for those who don't have the ability naturally: all real expressions except contempt are symmetrical, and most expressions are less than five seconds - such that any expression that is asymmetrical or lasts too long is suspect.

(EN: The author does not mention what to do when you notice a fake expression, but this becomes an important tactical decision - to play along and allow the other party to believe they have deceived you, or to react to their real emotional state to convey that you are not deceived. It can become a very complex game, and is rather interesting - but a great deal of information of this nature is highly speculative and advice for strategy seems anecdotal at best.)

Lessons Learned

The author briefly mentions a few anecdotes in which people behaved in an acutely bone-headed way in dealing with people of other cultures, and admits to a few peccadilloes of her own.

She at last mentions that people are often "extremely generous" in overlooking cultural mishaps, and suggests that if you spend a little time attempting to understand other cultures and show basic respect for their norms and values, you can count on being forgiven an occasional blunder.