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How to Read Body Language: Examples from Around the World

how to read body language

If you want to make a great first impression no matter where you are, learning how to read body language is key. And while you may be familiar with the customs and nonverbal cues of your own culture, traveling abroad is a different story.

Different cultures have their own interpretations of body language. For example, direct eye contact may be expected in one country, but be inappropriate in another.

Some other important nonverbal cues to pay attention to are hand gestures, personal space, and even posture. Included below are some helpful tips on how to read body language, as well as a few examples of body language from around the world.  

5 Tips on How to Read Body Language

1. Proximity

Paying attention to how close someone stands to others during conversation is vital. If you stand too close to someone, it might be a sign of aggression in their culture. On the other hand, if you stand too far away, it might come across as insincere.

In Japan, it’s common to have more of a distance between others. One reason for this need of extra space is the bow made when greeting others.

This is quite different from Latin American cultures, which are very tactile and affectionate. When speaking with someone from a Latin American country, be prepared to stand very close to the other person.

2. Face and Eyes

Many times, observing a person’s facial expressions can tell much more than their words. Is the person looking away, or at someone else? This might mean that he or she is not fully engaged in the conversation.

Direct eye contact on the other hand is typically a sign of genuine interest. Another sign of sincerity is a smile that involves the entire face. A smile that involves just the mouth might be a forced smile.

3. Hand Gestures

Always be sure to observe the hands of whoever you’re speaking with. Are they motioning with their hands as they speak, or are their hands folded? In what context do they use certain gestures or signs?

A seemingly small gesture can have a positive meaning in one country, but a completely opposite meaning in another. In the US for example, a thumbs-up sign signals a confirmation. In the Middle East, however this same gesture is offensive!

body language examples

4. Arm and Feet Positioning

Posture is also key in understanding body language. Pay attention to how others’ arms and feet are positioned while speaking. In some cultures, folding your arms across your chest appears standoffish and even insulting.

Sitting positions are also very important. Positioning your feet to show your soles while sitting is considered very rude in most Middle Eastern countries.

5. Mirroring

Appropriate body language in a culture will usually be mirrored. So one of the most important tips on how to read body language is by merely observing the other person to see if he or she is mirroring your movements.

It’s always on the safe side to shadow what you see others doing in another culture. Over time you’ll learn to adopt that culture’s customs so you don’t stand out too much from the crowd!

Body Language Examples From Around the Globe

Check out this animated infographic with examples of how body language differs around the world. Be sure to click on each magnifying glass for more details!

Here are some more body language examples that represent the many cultural differences around the world.

Head Movement

Head movements can have very different meanings in different parts of the world. For example, in India, a side-to-side head tilt is used to confirm something. In Japan, a nod means that you have been heard, but not necessarily that there is agreement.

Eye Contact

In most Western cultures, eye contact shows that you are being attentive and interested in the speaker. Constant eye contact in Japan can make people feel incredibly awkward.

In Spanish and Arabic cultures, strong visual contact is very common between people of the same sex and not looking back is often considered disrespectful.

Nose Contact

Blowing your nose into a handkerchief is a typical action in Western cultures, but it’s considered dirty and rude to the Japanese. Tapping your nose in Italy means “watch out,” while it means that something is “confidential” in the UK.

Lips and Kisses

In the Filipino culture, the lips are used to point toward something, while Americans would use their fingers. Kisses in public are a normal way to say hello or goodbye to a loved one in some European cultures, but in Asian cultures, these gestures are considered intimate and are often left for the privacy of one’s home.

body language examples

Finger Signs

It’s important to be cautious when using finger gestures in other countries. Here are the various meanings of joining the thumb and index finger to form a ring:

  • This is positive sign in the US, meaning “OK.”
  • In France and Germany, this signals “zero” or “nothing.”
  • In Japan, this sign means “money” if you’re in a professional setting.
  • In some Mediterranean, Arabic, and Latin American countries, this gesture is an obscenity.

Proximity

Personal space varies greatly across cultures. It’s common in China for people to stand very close to one another, while Americans are accustomed to a lot of physical space. Latin American cultures are very tactile and affectionate so they also stand closer to one another.

Physical Contact

While an almost automatic response for some people, touch is very important to consider when with people from other cultures. In the British culture for example, they are more conservative with their tactile gestures. In the US, Americans are more open to handshakes and hugs.

Other countries where it may be considered rude to touch others include:

  • Japan
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Portugal
  • Scandinavia

Some countries where it’s generally okay to touch the other speaker include:

  • Turkey
  • France
  • Italy
  • Greece
  • Spain

Learning how to read body language can truly enhance any cultural or travel experience. If you’re interested in learning more, studying a foreign language is another excellent way to gain insight into communication styles that differ from your own.

Check out TakeLessons to learn the language of your choice and be introduced to its culture by a native speaker. Or join an online language class today for free!

Post Author: Jinky B.
Jinky B. teaches French and ESL in Jacksonville, Florida. She has a Bachelors in French, French Literature, and Psychology from Florida State University and over five years of teaching experience. Learn more about Jinky B. here!

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Quiz What is Your Learning Style

Quiz: What is Your Learning Style?

No matter what you’re learning, your personality plays a big role! Everyone learns differently, and the strategies that work for one person may not work for another — and that’s OK!

Whether you’re learning a new language or even picking up a new hobby, it’s smart to keep your learning style in mind. That way, you’re setting yourself up for success from the start!

So, what is your learning style? Take the quiz below to find out:

ESL Learners: Are You Making These 21 Common Mistakes?

20 Words Most Misused By ESL LearnersSometimes people who have learned English as a second language confuse some basic English words — there are certainly some tricky ones! Here are the words ESL learners misuse the most:

Them, Those, and These

“Them” is a pronoun that stands in the place of a plural noun. It is commonly used as the subject of a sentence, as in: Did you see them? or Have you seen the scissors? I used them to cut the labels off my T-shirts; now I can’t find them.

“Those” indicates a group that is distant from the observer, for example: Those girls are the ones who found the missing keys.

“These” refers to a group that is near the observer: These pencils are the ones I use for drawing.

Their, There, and They’re

These three words are frequently mixed up – even by native English speakers, let alone ESL learners.

“Their” is a plural possessive, referring to something that belongs to a group the speaker is not a part of. Look at this sentence: A common characteristic of the members of the Red-Headed League was their red hair.

“There” is a location that is somewhat distant from the observer or speaker, as in: Put the suitcases over there on the bed. However, it can also be used to refer to a state of being: There are 12 items in one dozen.

“They’re” is a contraction of “they are,” as in: They are going to the store.

Similar/Similarly

“Similar” is used in the objective case, whereas “similarly” is an adverb that describes function. For example: Apples are similar to pears in that they are both fruit vs. Laptops function similarly to desktop computers.

Whether/Weather

“Whether” is used when there is a decision to be made, as in: I am not sure whether or not I should mow the lawn.

“Weather” refers to an external condition, such as rain, snow, or sunshine. Here’s an example of both: I’d better mow the grass, whether I want to or not, because the weather report is predicting rain for tomorrow.

To, Too, and Two

Again, these are homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently) that are often confused by ESL learners. Here are some examples:

I am going to the store. – Indicates a desire to travel from one place to another.
I meant to do it. – Indicates intention.
If you are going to the store, I want to go, too. – Here, “too” means to be added on to something.
If the two of us go to the store, we can carry back the ice cream, and some soda pop, too. – “Two” is the spelling for the numeral two.

Of

“Of” often gets used when the correct word is “have.” For example: I should of done it. Instead, the correct written statement is: I should have done it, which is frequently contracted into: I should’ve done it.

“Of” also gets used interchangeably with “from”: My feet felt as if they were made of/from lead.

Affect/Effect

This is a word combination that will have native English speakers reaching for a dictionary. Simply put, “to affect” something is to change it (it’s usually used as a verb), but “effect” is the result or change that has been achieved.

Examples:
To affect change in the environment, everyone must work together.
Internal combustion engines have a negative effect on the air quality.

Lay/Lie

“Lay” always needs a direct object, whereas “lie” is used when there is no direct object.

Example: Please lay the suitcases on the floor, so that I can lie down on the bed.

Sit/Set

“Sit” doesn’t require an object and refers to live things—similar to lay/lie. “Set” is used when directing someone to place an item on a surface.

Example: Sit down in the comfy chair, and I will set the tea table in front of you.

With

“With” is often confused with “to” – and this is made even more confusing by the alternation sometimes being correct usage. For example: Ford Rangers, when compared to/with Ferraris, are a much better buy for a working man. However, even though you might say, I will go to the store, you would not say, I will go with the store.

ESL Learners

Looking to improve your speaking or writing skills? Search for a private English or ESL tutor today!

Cari Bennette is a blogger, content creator at custom writing service Jet Writers, and ghost author. Her favorite topics are academic writing, education, blogging, and career. Feel free to drop her a line on Twitter.

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Tips for Learning English in the U.S. | A Glimpse Through the Eyes of a Recent Immigrant

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For immigrants new to the U.S., the challenge of learning a second language can be tough. With so many options available, what’s the best way to learn English? Read on as San Jose, CA tutor Gina C. shares her tips…

I recently interviewed Francy M., who arrived from Columbia seven months ago. Francy started studying English in her home country in high school, but only a little; now, she knows she needs to learn to speak and understand English if she hopes to work in the U.S., so she made that her primary goal when she arrived here.

When I asked Francy, a native Spanish speaker, what the main challenges are to learning English, she noted that the writing is very different.  “Words are not written as they are pronounced like in Spanish.” Also, she has to translate in her mind to be able to say what she wants to say and then many times she just does not have the English words to express what she is thinking.

These are just some of the challenges that students learning ESL face. So, how do you make learning easier? If you are new to the U.S. or have been here a while, but feel you need to improve your English, there are several different ways you can go about doing this.

  1. Community College ESL Classes: You can take ESL classes through a community college. Those don’t start at the beginner level, but may be appropriate for someone who knows some English and wants to start training for a career or getting college credits. If obtaining college credits is not part of your goal, but you have other aspirations such as improving your English to obtain a job or perform your current job better, you may want to consider a qualified coach, teacher, or small group option.

  2. Government-Subsidized ESL Classes: The government offers subsidized ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, usually available through the Adult Education Program at various high school districts. But due to budget slashing, those programs are often a challenge to get into. The other drawback is that there are usually 30+ students in a class and you are forced to go at the pace of other students who may be slower than you. Or, conversely, you may be confused and may not get all of your questions answered.

  3. Computer-Aided Instruction:

  • Rosetta Stone: Francy uses Rosetta Stone and says that it’s a good program, but not without having a class or tutor as a resource for consulting. “The program raises questions for me, like why does 3rd person singular have an s? And, what is the –ing ending? Since I am in a class, I can take my questions to the teacher.” Without a class to supplement your learning, I’d recommend working with a tutor or coach to walk you through the questions that come up when using Rosetta Stone or any other application or website for learning a language. The truth is, without a subject matter expert and the opportunity to practice, you may end up confused or may understand but not be able to actually produce as in conversing.
  • YouTube: Francy has found other tools to be helpful, as well. She searches for “How kids learn English” on YouTube and looks for children’s songs as well as popular songs that include lyrics, such as Fool’s Garden’s “Lemon Tree“.
  • ESL Websites: Another resource that Francy uses are ESL videos created by the Sacramento County Office of Education. They can be found at The California Distance Learning Project. If you click on “Other Learning Websites” at the top, you will be directed to many more free websites for learning English, including video, audio, and written scripts.

Of course, you’ll need to figure out what options works best for you. When Francy first got here, she enrolled in a private institute in the East San Jose area that was recommended by a friend. Perhaps if she knew more about American culture, she would have been suspect that the name of the school was in Spanish. If she had done her due diligence, she would have noticed that there were no reviews for it online nor much information. She enrolled and began taking classes and quickly realized it “was a waste of time” because the English class was conducted mainly in Spanish. Later, she sought out a community college. She is satisfied with her decision to use a community college, but it is good to keep in mind that the U.S. offers a variety of ways to learn English. If Francy had known about TakeLessons.com, she could have found a reputable tutor right away who could have gotten her on the right track to learning English.

Because Francy is so resourceful, I told her that she will be able to learn English with her dedication and ingenuity. She told me, “Thank you. Ojalá.” I fed her the English, “I hope so!” If you are looking to learn English and have found that the mainstream programs do not fit your schedule or needs, consider finding an ESL tutor or small group instructor who can get you speaking English quickly!

GinaCGina C. teaches languages, including English, ESL, and Spanish, in San Jose, CA. She received her MA in Hispanic Studies, her BA in English Literature, and has over 25 years’ experience teaching English, Spanish, and Business Communication. Learn more about Gina here!

 

 

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