Non-verbal cues you need to be wary of when living abroad...

Published 2020-07-29 08:56

 If you’ve lived abroad long enough, you definitely have a few funny (or maybe even not so funny and totally awkward) stories of misinterpretation of certain nonverbal cues. Indeed, body language and gestures are not perceived in the same way across the world. In some cultures, making eye contact is considered a sign of confidence and shows that one is engaged and interested in the conversation while in others, it is downright impolite. So let’s try to decipher body language across cultures, shall we?

Eye contact

Eye contact can mean one thing in one part of the world and a completely different thing in another part. If you’re from America or Western Europe, you probably know eye contact to be a sign of confidence and interest in the person you are talking to or, at least, in the conversation. In business contexts, strong eye contact is a sign of trustworthiness. Shying away from maintaining eye contact in countries of Northern America and Western Europe is not necessarily impolite but can definitely be perceived as a lack of confidence and lack of willingness to participate.

On the other hand, in the Middle East eye contact between members of the opposite sex is not appropriate. But even amongst members of the same sex, maintaining eye contact for very long is seen as “defying authority”. This is also the case in Asian, Caribbean and African cultures. It is especially rude to maintain eye contact with elder members of the family or with a superior at work.


Have you ever pulled in closer to someone for a hug and have them extend a hand for a shake? Awkward, right? Well, over and above personal preferences regarding intimate space, there are also cultural differences on how appropriate close proximity is. In Latin American cultures, people tend to be very touchy-feely. They enjoy hugs and accolades.

In Northern America, proximity with people depends on how well you know them. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, you would probably go for a nod, handshake. But between friends, hugs are common as greetings although the proximity for the rest of the interaction will depend on how close you are with the person and personal preference.

In Spain, Italy and other mediterranean countries, physical proximity is common and accepted. You would hug or kiss some to greet them, for example. On the other hand, in countries like England or Germany physical proximity really does depend on your relationship with the person as well as on personal preference.

In Middle Eastern countries, physical proximity, especially between members of the opposite sex is frowned upon. It is the same in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Even in southeast Asian countries, physical proximity is not very common. Even public displays of affection are not very common and likely deemed inappropriate even for married couples. In Japan, for example, people tend to remain at a distance during a conversation- particularly to leave some space for a bow.

Physical proximity is also uncommon in African countries between people who are not very close. It is unusual to see people hugging or being overly physical, although this does depend on the country or the culture.

Hand gestures

That’s an interesting one. Depending on where we grew up, we have probably learnt hand gestures and believe they are universal. For example, the thumbs up must mean “Ok” everywhere, right? Well, yes okay that might be a pretty universal gesture but some hand gestures are not. The sign where the index finger and the thumb forms a ring while the three other fingers are extended means “Ok” in America and a lot of European countries. However, in France it means “nothing”, in Japan it means “money” and Latin America it is an obscene gesture.

On the other hand (pun intended!), you know the horn fingers? In America, it says “rock and roll”! But in Mediterranean and Latin countries, doing this at someone will alert them that their spouse is cheating on them.

The V sign is also perceived differently in different countries or cultures. In America, it means “peace” or “victory”. But in the UK, South Africa and Australia, it is an obscene gesture!

2 weeks ago

Interesting, thank you Anne-Lise. The only one that surprised as in "is it true?", is: "The V sign is also perceived differently in different countries or cultures. In America, it means “peace” or “victory”. But in the UK, South Africa and Australia, it is an obscene gesture!" I have never felt so (for UK), nor anyone I know. Is that interpretation an age thing, maybe? And what do the Aussies here say? True?

Anne-Lise M. Mestry
Anne-Lise M. Mestry
last week

Hi ThisIsParadise, maybe the other side of the "peace sign", so with the back of the hand facing forward. Lived in the UK for a couple of years and learnt it was not a very hospitable sign indeed. But then again, I was at uni at the time!