It is true that some elements of non-verbal communication, like micro-gestures, are shared across cultures because they are based on biological reactions (like blushing, shaking or pupils dilating). So we could say that they are common to all of us: gestural communication.

Gestural communication is much more than body language

Body language falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, as its origins lie in social learning but is still unconscious and uncontrolled. So in large part it depends on the culture in which we have learned to communicate.

But the so-called emblems are very different from the former types of non-verbal communication in nature. And this is because emblems are gestures whose meaning is the result of collective convention. Meaning that, like with languages, we all know what a table is because society has agreed that this is what we will call that object.

Emblems are culture specific

It is important to be aware of this fact, because the emblems we use in our community may not have the same meaning to others. Just as a table doesn’t have the same name around the world.

Some examples of this variety in gestural language are:

Thumbs up

A gesture commonly used to show approval (as we were taught Cesar did in the Roman circus, although this hasn’t been proven) in Turkey can be an invitation to a homosexual encounter.

Yes or no?

To say no, you shake your head from side to side, and to say yes, nod up and down. Easy, right? Well it turns out that in Bulgaria it’s just the opposite.

Shaving

this typical Italian gesture of brushing the top of your hand under your chin, as if shaving, simply implies disapproval, an emphatic “no”. But in France and Belgium, among other places, it is a show of masculinity that while not quite as aggressive as grabbing your genitals is not far off.

Gestural communication is very important in a multicultural context

These are just a few examples of how important gestural communication is in a multicultural context: to be aware of the gestural languages of other cultures in order to avoid offending others or getting into a sticky situation.

Need cultural advice when doing business abroad? Don’t hesitate and contact us.

Article by Ivan Carnicero.