How to prepare for meetings with your international audience. Part 2: Non-verbal communication
Good preparation is the key to a successful meeting with your international customers. Cultural differences, habits or stereotypes may influence your verbal and non-verbal communication. In Part 1 we looked at the most common time perspectives across the cultures to help you prepare for business with foreign partners. In this article you’ll find out how to interpret and use non-verbal communication patterns.
Certain cultures prefer to be in close contact with their interlocutors and allow light touch, even during business meetings. This behaviour is related to divisions between what is public and private and to comfort or lack of comfort with physical contact. Another reason for different space orientation lies in individualistic vs. collective cultures. That’s why in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, the German or Swedish visitors may feel intimidated by the closeness of their business partners during conversation. Usually, Northern European countries and some Asian countries, such as Japan, require more personal space than the residents of Southern Europe or Latin America. To be on the safe side, no matter where you are, try to keep a minimum distance of 0.5 meters (2 feet).
Eye contact is an important element of every communication process. However, not everywhere direct and prolonged eye contact is welcome and perceived as a sign of professionalism or reliability. In some Asian and African countries direct eye contact might be interpreted as a challenge, lack of respect or politeness. This is especially true for people of different age or social register. For example, if your business partner is an elder Japanese gentleman, you should probably opt for sporadic or brief eye contact to make sure you’ll come across as a well-mannered person. There are also some countries where direct eye contact between the sexes might be considered provocative or inappropriate. Remember this rule especially in the Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Hand and arm gestures
The meaning of hand gestures varies across the countries. Differences exist also in the intensity of gestures. People from certain cultures talk with their hands more than others, also in the business environment. What is considered common in Italy or Latin America might be perceived as too dynamic or unprofessional in some Northern European or Asian cultures. Before starting a business meeting with your foreign customer, make sure you know if the OK or victory sign really means the same what you think it does in your culture and adjust the amount of hand movements to come across as professional.
Head movements might also become a reason for confusion in a multi-cultural setting. For example, the same head movement that means “Yes” in Europe or in the US actually indicates a “No” in Bulgaria or Saudi Arabia. Nodding doesn’t always mean that your partner agrees with you, in some countries, for example in Japan, a nod signifies that your partners heard what you’ve said, although they don’t necessarily agree with your suggestion or remark.
In business settings non-verbal communication is often more significant than what you actually say. Gestures, postures, head movements or facial expressions may carry different meanings across cultures, so remember to prepare well for the meeting with your business partners. Finding out about the body language, its meaning and use in the country of your customer may help you avoid many confusions, misunderstandings and failures.
If you want to learn more about communicating with business people from across the world, check out our Intercultural Business Communication course at Udemy.
Dorota Pawlak is a localization consultant for digital brands. She enjoys helping businesses enter new markets and is passionate about cultures, languages, and technology.
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