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Body Language, Gestures and Silence Have Different Cultural Translations

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 13, 2011

You're arranging a business deal, and the person you're negotiating with maintains eye contact, leans back slightly, and looks relaxed. Things are going pretty well, right? Not necessarily.

A study by researchers at the University of Waterloo finds that people from different cultures differ in their interpretation of nonverbal communication. A 2008 study suggested that as much as 65 percent of social meaning is conveyed nonverbally, so misreading body language and nonverbal cues can cause major disruptions in international diplomacy and business.

Zhaleh Semnani-Azad and Wendi L. Adair asked 105 male graduate students to participate in a negotiation scenario in which a baker and liquor store owner, who were to share space in a new market, had to agree on such issues as hiring policies, employee training costs and an advertising budget. The participants were 48 Mandarin speaking students born in China and 56 native Canadians. They were randomly assigned to be baker or liquor store owner and they negotiated with a person of their own culture who was, unbeknownst to them, a research assistant trained to behave in neural and noncommittal ways. Their surprising results are described in a recent issue of Strategy+Business. Their paper, available here, was presented at the 2011 International Association for Conflict Management Conference, Istanbul, organized by the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

The researchers found both groups conveyed a positive attitude by smiling, leaning forward and gesturing as they spoke. But there were profound differences in the way Chinese and Canadian participants interpreted eye contact, posture, bodily position, and silences. When Chinese participants leaned back and made frequent eye contact, they were usually projecting dislike and negativity. Canadians doing the same things were likely to be feeling positive. Canadians who felt negative were likely to avert their gaze from their negotiating partner. For the Chinese, a lowered gaze was more likely to indicate respect. Among the Chinese participants, an erect posture tended to convey submissiveness. So Canadians, who were likely to communicate dominance by sitting very straight, could interpret an erect posture among Chinese as aggressive or unfriendly. Researchers also reported earlier studies showing Asian negotiators often use silence in persuasion, or polite rejection, whereas silence makes North American negotiators uncomfortable and argumentative.

A paper on international negotiation styles suggests that like Americans, Mexicans want frequent eye contact, but they do not like loud or boisterous speech, and ambiguous statements may be their polite way of saying "no." Gestures and symbols have different meanings, too. The American OK sign of forefinger and thumb forming a circle, the paper says, has an obscene meaning in Mexico. And as American troops learned, and a Slate article by Brendan Koerner reports, the traditional American thumbs up sign for approval is a really crass insult in Iraq and several other countries.

Experienced negotiators and travelers warn against over-generalizing and unproductive stereotypes. But understanding and respect are vital. The Canadian government established the Centre for Cultural Learning in 1969 to provide intercultural and international training services for government agencies, NGOs, and private sector enterprises with international involvement. The site has links to informative websites about virtually every country in the world, and its Country Insight feature leads visitors to valuable summaries of cultural, economic and political information about countries and regions all over the world.

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