09 March 2017

The Importance of Body Language in International Business

Imagine you are in Japan on a business trip. You are about to begin a meeting that has taken months to arrange, where you will be meeting your Japanese clients for the first time.

When you arrive at the office, you are eager to impress, so you walk directly up to the host, firmly shake their hand and exclaim that it is great to finally meet them. You then sit yourself down in the nearest chair to begin the meeting.

While this approach may not seem particularly dreadful to professionals in the UK, it would likely create a bad first impression in Japan, as it shows complete disregard for Japanese business etiquette. Generally, Japanese businessmen bow quietly to each other upon meeting and wait to be offered a seat.

Understanding such customs about body language is absolutely essential when you are doing business overseas (in Japan or elsewhere), as it enables you to create good first impressions and build trust with clients.

What does body language encompass?

Body language refers to every aspect of how an employee conducts themselves in a business scenario – from basic gestures like greeting the host with a handshake, kiss or bow, to smaller (but no less important) details like knowing in which order to greet people, whether to hold eye contact when doing so, and if women should be greeted differently.

What is commonplace in one country might risk causing offence if used during a business meeting in another country (e.g. in the UK and the US, we frequently use our index fingers to point at things – perhaps when giving a presentation – but, in Taiwan, this is a rude gesture, and pointing should be done with an open hand).

As such, getting it wrong could be damaging to your business trip. As body language customs vary so dramatically, it is advisable to invest in specific cultural training before doing business internationally.

To get you started, here are just some of the body language customs that change from country to country.

Handshakes

In the UK and the US, a firm handshake is generally accepted as the most appropriate form of greeting, as it conveys respect for the host and indicates confidence and trust.

The handshake is also a commonplace business greeting in many other parts of the world, including Finland, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. But not all countries like strong handshakes – in Japan, for example, where it is generally more usual for businessmen to bow to one another, handshakes are usually fairly weak. In France, they are typically gentle and fast.

Etiquette around gender and rank is another important aspect to look into before attempting to shake an international professional’s hand.

In Finland, for example, it is polite to shake a woman’s hand before a man’s, whereas, in Germany, employees should only shake a woman’s hand if she has extended it first. In some countries, it is not customary to shake hands with a woman (in Saudi Arabia, for example, it is preferable to put your hand on your heart, and, in India, to place both hands together and say ‘namaste’), while, in Taiwan, professionals should gently shake hands with the person of the highest rank first.

Bowing

In Japan and China, a bow is the traditional form of greeting and is a polite way to show respect. Saying this, it is now quite common for businessmen to combine a bow with a handshake, in order to reciprocate the respect. If in doubt about what greeting is most appropriate, take your lead from the host.

Eye contact

In Western countries, such as the UK and the US, eye contact is associated with confidence, trust, and agreement. Dropping eye contact can give the impression of insincerity, anxiety, or indifference.

In some Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern cultures, though, eye contact can be interpreted as rudeness, or, if initiated by a woman, as an inappropriate indication of sexual interest.

Proximity

Space is a hugely important concept when it comes to international business and can say a lot about a culture’s approach to social conduct, religion, and gender.

In many Arab cultures, for example, where contact between unmarried women and men is generally frowned upon, it would be inappropriate for a male professional to stand too close to a female, or initiate any form of touching (such as a handshake or kiss on the cheek).

Different cultures have dramatically different views to how close to each other professionals should stand or sit during conversation, and whether touching is acceptable.

According to Carol Kinsey Goman’s The Silent Language of Leaders, employees in the UK generally like to maintain a gap of about two feet from another person at all times, as any less feels intrusive. Though some professionals will hug, kiss or touch close colleagues, bodily contact is not commonplace when meeting new people.

This is similar in Australia, where standing less than three feet away from colleagues creates feelings of intensity and discomfort, and makes workers feel as though they are having a serious or confidential conversation.

Countries such as Tanzania, Scandinavia, the Philippines, India, and Japan also prefer a gap of about two feet.

By contrast, closeness is valued in Arab countries, and standing too far apart from the host (as long as both parties are male) could result in negative feeling.

Similarly, in Brazil, the business culture is quite intimate, and it is usual to experience hugging and touching amongst businessmen and to sit and stand in close proximity.

Creating a good first impression for a lasting relationship

Adopting a culture’s etiquette when it comes to body language is all part of showing respect to the host, and indicating an appreciation of their business.

If you walk into a meeting with no regard for that country’s customs (as in the opening example), then it might seem as though you are not interested in creating a long-lasting, two-way relationship – resulting in loss of business or a damaged reputation.

If you are thinking about conducting business overseas, contact us today to find out more about bespoke language lessons and/or cultural training that will ensure employees demonstrate appropriate business etiquette to international clients.

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