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Multicultural Communication: Gesture and Facial Expression

Over the past two weeks we’ve discussed some different aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication that can impact your interactions in a multicultural workplace. Today, we’ll discuss two basic, but complicated aspects of non-verbal communication: gestures and facial expressions.

We tend to put very little thought into how we use our hands during a conversation. Our gestures are a product of our personal communication style, but they are also a product of culture. A gesture which may be completely benign or even complimentary in one culture can be incredibly offensive in others. Take for example, former President Nixon’s visit to Brazil. When exiting his plane, he gave the “okay” sign as it is understood in America: index finger to thumb, all other fingers extended. Unfortunately for Nixon, in Brazil (as well as Germany and Russia) this is an exceedingly vulgar sign. In other cultures, a thumbs-up gesture or ‘V’ with the palm facing the body are considered insulting, similar to the American version of the middle finger. As a precaution, avoid using hand signals or gestures that may be uniquely American when dealing with professionals from another country or culture.

Like gestures, facial expressions tend to be second nature. Although we think of facial expressions as completely natural, these too are affected by culture. For example, smiling is used in different ways in different cultures. In some East Asian cultures, people offer a smile when embarrassed or confused. In Japanese culture, a smile is often considered a sign of frivolity, so smiling is avoided in important situations, so it is not thought that the individual is not taking the occasion seriously. When dealing with individuals from another culture, make sure you understand the possible reasons that they may or may not offer a smile in order to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. In addition, be aware that your friendly smile may hold more meaning for your conversation partner than you realize.

Stay tuned! Next week we’ll wrap up our series on multiculturalism with more communication tips to use in the workplace.

Do you want to improve your communication skills and sharpen your speech? At Corporate Speech Solutions, our team of corporate speech-language pathologists can help you reach your professional potential through strong, confident communication. Give us a call at 212-308-7725 or visit us on the web at www.corporatespeechsolutions.com. Don’t live in NYC? No problem! Our services are Skype ready, so Corporate Speech Solutions can help you improve your communication from anywhere in the world.