Nod Once To Agree And Once To Disagree: How to Interpret for Effective Cross-cultural Communication

“Tomato”, “tomahto”, thumbs up…up yours? Like pronunciation, not all gestures are universal, and if you aren’t careful you can insult someone when you only meant to be polite!


65% of social meanings are relayed through non-verbal cues according to anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Understandably then, spoken word isn’t the only thing to interpret for effective cross-cultural communication. Unfortunately there is neither a universal spoken language, nor a universal “body language”. What's perfectly normal in one culture can be considered strange or offensive in another. Here are some big examples to be aware of!


Smiling – when you pass by someone or make brief eye contact, it's normal to smile in America, but if you smile at strangers in certain European countries it can be viewed as extremely strange.



Thumbs Up – indicates the number 1 in France and that everything is good in Brazil and the U.S, but is extremely rude in Islamic and Greek cultures (akin to an “up yours”).




Body Language -- HornsThe Horns –this gesture can mean a variety of things from “rock on” to metal heads in the west, to “your wife is having intercourse with other men” in Italy (and it isn't used lightly).



Body Language -- yes & noHead-nod – for most people a nod is indicative of agreement, except in places like Greece or Bulgaria where it’s the exact opposite.



Body Language -- Cross leggedThe Shoe – do not EVER sit cross legged in a Middle Eastern or Asian country. Pointing the sole of your shoe towards someone is seen as an insult, and can cause quite the misunderstanding.



Body Language -- Eye ContactEye Contact – prolonged eye contact can indicate aggression in African countries, while causing the Finnish and Japanese to become quite uncomfortable. In Places like England, Greece and Spain it is the norm.



Come Here GestureThe “Come Here” Gesture – in the west it is fine to wave people over by wiggling your finger, but in Asia this is highly disrespectful and only used for animals - instead put your hand out, palm down, and curl your fingers in and out. However, if you’re in Italy it is an acceptable way to say goodbye to your friends.



Understanding body language is only one of the ways you can increase your cultural awareness as an interpreter. Our Medical, Legal, and Business & Community Interpreter Training will teach you the information you need to know in order to be the most effective interpreter possible!

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