What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say
It is truly astonishing the degree to which we are unaware of the message we constantly transmit through our body language. We so often try to impress others with our clever use of words, memorising funny lines to be funny, or studying lists of quotes spoken by important people to sound important ourselves, that we forget that we are communicating all the time, whether we want to or not. The quote (quotes are more acceptable in written form, since body language cannot be transmitted from author to reader, as one could do in person) that started this article really expresses this sentiment quite eloquently.
Body language says so much about who you are, what you are feeling, what you think of others, but also your origin. Being part of a culture will inescapably determine the constitution of your body language, which will be undoubtedly observable to those around you, especially when you are abroad. Being amongst your kin will make this cultural trait less salient, but also more pronounced. It is when we travel abroad that we pick up on this “outlandish” behaviour.
One of the most peculiar aspects of body language is touching, which is closely related to personal space. Isn’t it puzzling how people from one culture maintain more personal space between each other and restrain from touching others when they speak, while people from other cultures find it awkward if you do exactly that? That is the power of culture.
Hugging and kissing are two forms of communication that are appropriate in different scenarios at different times in different countries. In Spain, for example, when you meet new people, let’s say a heterosexual couple, as a male you give the man a firm handshake and give the woman one kiss on each cheek, as a female you give both sexes one kiss on each cheek. However, at work you give both men and women a handshake. This changes usually once you get to know your work colleagues better and become more friendly with them.
In Scotland, for example, it is very uncommon for male family members to kiss each other. Brothers do not kiss each other, neither do fathers and sons. It doesn’t mean they have trouble showing affection for one another, it just means this is not the way they go about doing so. In Spain, male family members will kiss each other every time they meet, as well as friends of the family. The Netherlands is somewhere in between, depending very much on age and generation. Dutch males from older generations will usually not kiss other male family members, whereas it is becoming more common amongst younger Dutch males.
Conversing is one of the activities we do most often in our daily lives, and the way we do it is quite different depending on our culture. Some people are loud, passionate (perceived as angry by some), and make vivid use of their hands, they walk while they talk; yet others are calm (perceived as cold by some), use little to no hand gestures, and remain firmly still while they talk.
When you live in your home country, the saliency of your culture’s idiosyncrasies is lessened, and you inevitably become unaware of the particularities of your culture and how it influences your behaviour. Moving abroad accentuates these particularities and idiosyncrasies, because it gives you the opportunity to compare yourself to a completely different culture.
Joseph Cavanna, ELM Team