Nonverbal Differences in Cross-Cultural Communication
Working in a diverse world can present interesting, yet sometimes challenging, opportunities for today’s customer service representatives. If you earn your living by providing products and services to others, you should invest time and effort to learn about nonverbal differences in cross-cultural communication. It is sometimes easy to forget that your values, beliefs, and practices are not universal. This is especially true related to nonverbal communication cues (body language) that people around the world use to send and receive messages.
The following are two nonverbal differences in cross-cultural communication for you to consider.
Sitting postures. There are various ways that men and women cross their legs when they sit. Depending on the customer with whom you are interacting, you might send a negative message if you are not careful. For example, many men from Western cultures assume a relaxed posture when sitting and cross one leg over the other at the knee so that their footpoints either right or left. This could potentially cause offense to customers from certain cultures. The alternative way for men to cross their legs at the knee is to put one over the other so that the top leg simply hangs down or dangles. Some men are physically uncomfortable with this posture or view it as a homosexual manner of sitting, depending on their culture. As a result, they often avoid this posture. In England and other parts of Europe, the latter posture is the culturally proper way for a man to sit, especially in a business or more formal setting.
Women in many cultures are taught that ladies do not sit with their legs apart and that they should cross their legs either at the knees with one leg draped over the other (as described for men) or tightly at the ankles.
In Korea and Japan where physical balance and control of one’s life is an important value, people often do not cross the legs, but simply sit “squared” in an upright or fairly rigid posture, with both feet on the floor and their hands resting on their knees as they talk.
Touching. The study of touching in nonverbal communication (haptics), has been explored by researchers for years in an effort to better understand how people from different cultures use and react to touch. There are many touching gestures used that have multiple meanings. Consider the reaction of a stranger that you accidentally rub against a woman in a crowded room compared to a regular customer whose hand or arm you intentionally touch during a business greeting or handshake. Depending on their culture, they may react in totally different ways. For example, in the Middle East there might be a loud outcry and accusations of molestation or an offense against their virtue. In other cultures, there might be no second thought given to the episode. Of course, the outcome scenarios might depend on the manner and context in which you rubbed against them or in which you touched their hand or arm.
The importance of understanding how people from around the world interpret what you might consider as an innocent gesture cannot be understated. For example, many adults in some cultures have a habit of patting the head or caressing the hair of a small child as they comment to a parent about how cute or sweet the child is. In Western cultures, many people might think nothing of this act. However, in countries like India, Singapore, Taiwan, Sri Lanka or Thailand, this could be viewed as an offensive gesture. That is because the head is believed to be the seat of the soul. By touching it, you might be wishing ill upon the person or disrespecting the cultural belief.
To further complicate the issue of touch, people who are more introverted or who tend to be more task-oriented, rather than people-oriented, often protect their personal zone. They typically do not like others intruding on it or touching them, especially strangers. This is why the general rule of thumb in the workplace or business setting is that the only appropriate touching is a professional handshake in Western cultures, and the appropriate greeting in others (e.g. hug, bow or cheek kiss).
Explore this blog to learn more about nonverbal differences in cross-cultural communication and how to effectively use nonverbal cues in diverse customer service situations. You may also want to get a copy of Please Every Customer: Delivering Stellar Customer Service across Cultures.