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Body language across cultures – a short etiquette guide for TEFL teachers

A look at what you, as a TEFL teacher, might need to consider before communicating in some of the most popular destinations around the world.

Most experts agree that 93% of our communication is non-verbal, with 55% of information being expressed via body language and 38% consisting of vocal signals. Body language, which is made up of gestures, facial expressions, posture, proximity and eye-contact, can convey different communicative meaning across cultures, and issues can arise in cross-cultural communication when people use and interpret body language differently. Therefore, body language plays a key role in how we get the message across. With that in mind, let’s have a look at what you, as a TEFL teacher, might need to consider before communicating in some of the most popular destinations around the world.

European differences

Throughout Europe, the cultural differences in body language are vast. Hand gestures, head movements and use of eye-contact can differ greatly from one country to the next. Here are a few differences to be aware of.

Head movements

The most common way to show agreement in the U.K is by nodding your head up and down. Similarly, shaking your head from side to side indicates that you disagree. However, in other European countries this is not the case. For example, in Greece, tilting the head first to the left and then to the right, whilst slightly closing the eyes, means “Yes.” Tilting the whole head upwards whilst raising the eyebrows means “No.” To confuse matters even further, when a Greek says “Ne”, they actually mean “Yes”. This can get pretty confusing when asking simple questions, such as “Can I please use your toilet?”

Similarly, in Bulgaria and Albania, a head shake means “Yes” while nodding up and down signifies a negative. In Turkey, a backward tilt of the head, accompanied by a tutting sound signifies “No” and simply raising the eyebrows can mean the same thing. In the U.K, we tut when we disapprove or when we are annoyed, so the opportunity for miscommunication here is huge. The first time I asked a simple question to a bus driver in Istanbul, I thought I had insulted him, his family and perhaps even his entire country, when I received a tut and a sharp head tilt in response. It took me a while to get used to this way of communicating, but I got there in the end.

Hand gestures

A thumbs up is a simple gesture to convey positive meaning, indicating encouragement or approval. So, this gesture couldn’t possibly cause offence, right? Wrong. Giving the thumbs up to somebody in Greece, is like giving the middle finger to someone in the U.K or the U.S. Therefore, I highly recommend avoiding the use of this gesture when communicating in Greece.

In Italy, body language is the most important part of making a point, and the average Italian uses 250 gestures per day. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, due to their emotional nature, there are many gestures in use to refer to negative character traits, and some are more offensive than others. In Southern Italy, craziness is indicated by mimicking the grinding of a pepper mill. This gesture implies that the person’s brain is whirring as fast as the mill’s blades. Sticking your arm out in front, with your palm rotated upwards, might look like a friendly gesture, as throughout the world, palm-up cues usually show congeniality and humility. However, in Italy, this is used to ridicule someone’s actions, words or appearance.

The horns gesture, displayed by leaving your index finger, and little finger poking out of a closed fist, is commonly used by heavy metal fans around the world to show their appreciation of their favourite music genre. However, in the Baltics, Italy, Portugal and Spain, this gesture, representing a bull’s horns, is used to say that someone’s wife has been cheating on them. Be very careful metal fans…

Asia

In Asia, making silly mistakes with common gestures could label you as rude and uncultured. Getting into trouble, so far away from home, is best avoided. Here are some social faux pas you do not want to make.

Eye-contact

In Western countries, including the U.K and the U.S, maintaining eye-contact with a person shows them that you are interested in what they are saying. However, in some Asian countries, maintaining eye-contact with someone is impolite, especially if the person you are speaking with is older or has a higher position or status than you. Malaysians tend to have an indirect and polite communication style and when communicating with a Malaysian person for the first time, direct eye-contact should be avoided, as holding their gaze could be seen as impolite. Similarly, in Japan, too much direct eye-contact in social situations can cause discomfort. It is preferable to look briefly in the eyes when greeting someone, and then look away, or down, before looking them in the eyes again. Don’t spend the whole time looking at your shoes though, as that’s just weird. Contrary to the above, during business negotiations or job interviews in Japan, you should try to maintain eye-contact whenever possible. Looking down or avoiding eye-contact can make you look suspicious, as though you have something to hide…

Posture

Being aware of your posture, when attending meetings or dining at a colleague’s house, is important in Asia. For example, in Japan, sitting crossed-legged is considered to be disrespectful and showing the soles of your feet or shoes in India and Thailand is considered to be offensive. Keep your feet firmly on the ground just to be on the safe side.

South America

South America is a popular destination for TEFL teachers, and Argentina in particular, has one of the largest TEFL jobs markets in the region. Here are a few tips to aid communication in this vibrant part of the world.

Proximity

If you’ve ever experienced a conversation with a ‘close talker’, you probably soon realised the importance of having a degree of personal space. In some countries, standing very close is considered to be perfectly ‘normal’. In South America, people tend to require less personal space. Argentinians and Peruvians love to get cosy, and in Argentina people are fond of touching each other when talking. This can seem a little scary to British and American people, who tend to be more conservative, but finding yourself at an intimate distance from Argentines will be hard to avoid. It would be better to just accept the new social distancing norms as you will inevitably find yourself pressed up against an armpit, probably on public transport, at some point during your stay.

As you can see, there are many things to consider before embarking on your TEFL journey. You should do your research before you go, as you don’t want to end up unintentionally offending someone. Bonne chance.

Written by Rachel Rowland for EnglishClub | April 2020
Rachel Rowland has been teaching English since 2003, which has taken her all over the world to Jakarta, Bali, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Puglia, and Erfurt. Teaching English has allowed her to travel the world and meet a wide range of interesting people, as well as gain a better understanding of herself. For the last two years she’s been working with TEFL Org, delivering TEFL courses and helping others develop their teaching skills and achieve their TEFL dreams.

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