Asia, Language Beyond the Words

The distance between the U.S. and Asia grows closer every day, as the world shrinks and cultures collide.  Communication between the East and West is challenging in both verbal and nonverbal arenas. As an American who has lived and traveled throughout Asia, I had many opportunities to experience communication mishaps. I came to realize what is acceptable in Japan is very different from what is acceptable in Malaysia or China.  While I wasn’t able to learn all of the commonly used languages in Asia, I found that learning about nonverbal cues was almost as powerful.

According to cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, 60 percent of all our communication is nonverbal.  We use nonverbal communication to say what words cannot.  When we send these messages cross culturally, there is high risk of miscommunication.  The uses of body language, posture, hand gestures, eye contact and facial expressions in the United States and Asia are very different, and do not translate across cultures easily.  This can lead to serious misunderstandings, even between Asian cultures.  For example:

Sitting cross-legged in the U.S. is regarded as comfortable, casual body language. However, in many parts of Asia, sitting in a way that shows others the sole of your shoe conveys disrespect.

In some cultures, nodding one’s head up and down means, “I agree with what you are saying.” However in other cultures, this same nod says: “I am listening to you intently.” Or “I am listening…but I am not in agreement.”

The same hand gesture can be interpreted positively or negatively, depending on the culture.   In some Asian cultures, it is rude to point with an index finger. Instead, people point with a thumb.  The “OK” sign, commonly used in the United States, has numerous interpretations in other cultures. They range from positive to rude, or even vulgar. Similarly, the “thumbs up” sign simply means “one” in Japan, but can be very rude in Australia.

To beckon someone in the U.S., you raise your hand palm up.  In many Asian cultures, your palm faces down, and your hand moves in a scratching motion.

Greetings vary as well.  A handshake is common in the U.S. and generally accepted worldwide.  In Japan, bowing is most often the form of greeting.

Silence is a very common practice in Asian cultures, where it is a sign of listening politely and contemplatively. It can be viewed in the U.S. as disinterest, or lack of knowledge.

Understanding nonverbal language is a powerful tool for intercultural communication.  As you travel, observe local gestures and body language, and learn more about them. If you see a gesture that you don’t understand, ask a local what it means.  Learning and respect lead to understanding.

For more details, read Roger E. Axtell’s The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World.

Written by Diane McGreal, Cultural Advisor, Living Abroad