More than words: Interpreting body language across cultures.

June 22, 2017 / by Lydia Koehn

A conversation between friends using hand gestures.Before you read, wrote, or even spoke your first word, you mastered a set of subtle, yet vital ways of communicating with friends, family, neighbors, and peers through body language.  A wave to say hello, a bow to show respect or reverence, or a welcoming smile. Language is more than words, grammar, and phrases; it is an embodied experience that is passed on from generation to generation, from person to person, and even from culture to culture as a signature code of communication.

Language learning doesn’t stop at the close of a textbook or the end of a Mango lesson, so we’ve gathered a few body language tips to keep in mind through cross-cultural exchanges.


Eye Contact

Eye contact varies greatly from culture to culture. Travel specialists at Joy Tour & Travel shared some insights on where to look when communicating in different cultures. For Western cultures, eye contact can signal that you are paying attention. In places like Japan and China, sustained eye contact can be interpreted as a challenge or a sign of disrespect. In places like Cuba, avoiding eye contact can be understood as a sign of dishonesty. When visiting a new place or interacting in a new environment, take a walk in a public area and observe the gaze of locals as they shop or greet friends.

Itchy Ears

One of our Mangos, Alex Moreira, has a funny story about a dinner meeting with a French friend in Italy. To express his appreciation over the tasty food, the Frenchman tugged his earlobe and thanked the waiter. After watching his friend emphatically pull on his ear for several moments, Alex laughingly explained that in Italy, this gesture has sexual connotations. Much to his French friend’s embarrassment, the Italian waiter was quite attentive to their table for the remainder of their meal. Additionally, according to Business Insider, pulling on your ear in Spain means someone is not paying for their drinks. Who knew a simple tug could signify so much?

Use Your Lips

Communicating with your mouth doesn’t always have to involve words. Many European cultures greet with light air kisses near the cheek, typically accompanied by a kissing sound.

French greeting etiquette.

However, a good rule of tongue is to keep your lips to yourself when visiting Asian cultures, as kisses are considered inappropriate in public spaces. Among the locals interviewed in Tokyo by Japan Today, most were uncomfortable at the thought of kissing a romantic partner in public. However, some Japanese interviewees said that they might be more open to public smooching with the help of a few beers or a with a foreign partner from a more romantically expressive culture.

Filipino, Native American, Puerto Rican, and Latin American people tend to use their mouths, instead of their fingers, when pointing. A puckering of the lips is generally combined with raising one’s eyebrows and extending the neck to point the lips and chin in the same direction.


You might want to practice the gesture to make the movement natural and fluid, so that when pointing out the ripest papaya at a fruit stand in Puerto Rico, you’ll keep your hands at your sides and pucker up.

Hands and Fingers

Pointing, as we know it in the United States, is frowned upon in China, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America. According to Move One Logistics’ relocation specialists, beckoning someone to come closer by curling your index finger could result in someone actually moving farther away in southern Europe as the gesture is used to say “goodbye.” Since the same gesture is used only for calling dogs in the Philippines and East Asia, try using words, instead.

Italians speak with their hands and are known for using sweeping hand gestures as an added layer of expression when speaking, while people from more reserved cultures, such as Japanese, would consider this to be too dramatic.

Even an action as simple as counting with one’s fingers can vary across cultures. In Hungarian culture, for instance, they start with their thumb when counting on their hand, while the thumb alone can signify the number five for Japanese people.

Touchy Feely

In many cultures, physical contact is an important part of socializing. Much like the United States, a “no-contact” culture is prevalent in northern Europe, while many countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and southern Europe have “high-contact” cultures. In these regions, touching someone’s arm or shoulder is a natural element of conversation.

Although it is considered taboo to touch another person’s head in Laos or Thailand, Filipino children call on elders (and often foreigners!) to give this gesture as a blessing through the request mano po (literally, hand sir).


Dr. Albert Mehrabian famously found that 93% of communication is nonverbal, with body language making up 55%, according to the research organization, Nonverbal Group. This means that even after you’ve mastered a language, you can use your body to effectively communicate across cultures. 

What sort of body language cues do you know? Leave them in the comments below!

Feeling a little nervous about how to motion your compliments to the chef in Italian? Check out Mango's over 70 language courses for fun phrases to try in your next multilingual encounter. 


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Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Lydia Koehn

Written by Lydia Koehn

E aí, tudo bem! A lively lexicologist, Lydia loves munching on alliterative morsels almost as much as she enjoys swapping tales of travel adventures.

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