People communicate every day in a great variety of ways. Be it speech, or writing, or hand gestures, every language has a unique method of communication. But perhaps the most varied form between cultures is that of body language. Understanding these differences not only makes you able to communicate with those of other cultures more easily, it also allows you to understand the other cultures on a deeper level.
Perhaps the most widely recognized cultural use of body language is in Italian. To many, it appears that they practically talk with their hands. This habit can really be found in almost any language, but it is for some reason much more prevalent in Italian. Another well-known cultural use of body language which differs from that of Americans can be found in many Asian countries. This is the form of respect related to eye contact. In America and most European countries, it is a sign of respect to look the person you are speaking with in the eye. But in Asian countries, that action is actually extremely disrespectful and even contemptuous. This is a very good example of why it is extremely important to make sure you understand the customs of a culture before entering into it.
Americans, too, use body language in a distinctly unique way, although it is often much more subtle. This subtlety is known to Americans as the beautiful thing called “sarcasm.” Almost every foreign exchange student I have met has an extremely hard time understanding it, and even people who have lived in America all their lives have trouble with it too. That’s because successful sarcasm is accomplished largely through subtle changes in body language. A slight change in facial expression or body posture can mean the difference between a hearty joke and a cruel insult, and many great misunderstandings can ensue if the change is not noted by the recipient. What’s worse is that almost everyone uses sarcasm slightly differently. Some use a change in facial expression, others change body posture, others use different voice inflection, and still others don’t make any change at all. It’s no wonder that foreigners have such a hard time understanding how it works!
Despite the many varieties in the use of body language between cultures, there are some forms which remain virtually universal. For instance, if someone is having a conversation, and the other person crosses his arms and leans back in the chair, it is clear that the other person is in disagreement with what is being said, or is otherwise becoming more defensive in manner. Similarly, if you are speaking with someone and the other person begins tapping his foot or becomes restless, it is clear that he wishes to leave the conversation. Or if you are in the audience of a lecture or classical concert, and you lean forward in your seat while watching the speaker or performance, it is clear that you are fully engaged with what is on stage. Body languages such as these are identical, or at least very similar, across the globe and unite us together as one great global community.