Cultural Differences in Body Language and Universal Facial Expressions

Cultural differences in interpersonal skills have long been recognised as essential to maintaining effective communication, within both the political and the global business worlds. The late Edward T. Hall, a renowned social anthropologist, believed that more than 65% of social messages are shared through non-verbal communications, such as body language and facial expressions.

The following information is part of a course aimed at businesses within the medical arena.

Cultural differences in body language

These five basic, non-verbal communications should be mastered:

  1. Head nodding – We are familiar with nodding our head to indicate ‘yes’ and shaking our head from side to side to indicate ‘no’. And this interpretation is in most cases correct. However, in Bulgaria, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Albania for example, the reverse is true and nodding of the head indicates no.
  2. Eye contact – A certain length of eye contact is considered polite in western cultures whilst refusing eye contact or dropping one’s eyes can be seen as impolite, untruthful or sly. In Japan, China and the Australian Indigenous peoples however, eye contact can be seen as disrespectful or as a direct challenge to superiors or elders.
  3. Hand gestures – Whilst the OK gesture – a circle made with thumb and index-finger and other fingers fanned or outstretched, is considered to signify ‘OK’ in many western countries, in Brazil, Russia, Germany and the Middle East it is an offensive gesture. Beckoning with a curled finger can get you arrested in the Philippines and is seen as rude in China, Malaysia and Singapore.
  4. Touching – Shaking hands is practically a universal greeting, although Asian cultures still prefer to bow. In Arab cultures, religious instructions dictate that the left hand is not to be used for touching or eating. Touching the head, as with a child, is seen as a friendly gesture in western cultures but is inappropriate in many Asian cultures.
  5. Signals – In the Netherlands and Poland, tapping the centre of your forehead with your index finger indicates “craziness”, Italians use the back of their hand rather than their index finger, whilst tapping the forehead in Russia indicates intelligence.

Cultural differences in Facial expressions

In his ground breaking research, Paul Ekman, an American Psychologist pioneered the study of facial expressions and created a montage of more than 10,000 different expressions. Facial photographs were shown to people in twenty different western cultures and eleven different isolated and pre-literate African groups. Results indicated that 95% of western respondents and 92% of African respondents were able to identify happy expressions; disgust and contempt showed similar findings.

In general, there are seven different facial expressions which correspond to distinct universal facial emotions:

  • Happiness: Raising and lowering of mouth corners, cheeks raised, and muscles around the eyes are tightened.
  • Sadness: lowering of mouth corners and raising inner portion of brows.
  • Surprise: Arching of brows, eyelids pulled up and sclera exposed, mouth open.
  • Fear: Brows arched and pulled together, eyes wide open, mouth slightly open.
  • Disgust: Eyebrows lowered, upper lip raised, nose wrinkled, cheeks raised.
  • Anger: Brows lowered, eyes bulging, lips pressed firmly.
  • Rest: none of the above. Well-honed interpersonal skills are non-negotiable for anyone in a client- or patient-facing role.


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