4 Aspects of Body Language – What They May Mean in Your Culture

Body language is a type of nonverbal communication that uses our facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and gestures to convey our (hidden) feelings and motives. Were you aware, though, that nonverbal cues commonly used in some cultures can be offensive in others? Consider the following examples:


  1. Eye Contact

While maintaining healthy eye contact often signify respect, interest, and attention in most Western cultures, the opposite can be true in many Asian cultures. In Thailand, for example, it is often viewed as a sign of respect and subordination if a person avoids eye contact, especially with one’s superior or someone who is older. In many Middle Eastern countries, however, eye contact tends to be maintained with higher intensity than Western cultures.


  1. Posture

An open posture is often appreciated in Western cultures as it indicates receptiveness, enthusiasm, and confidence. In many Asian cultures, however, this may come across as arrogance and overconfidence. A typical Asian interviewer may prefer a potential employee who is more modest in approach.


  1. Hand Gestures

When asking someone to come over, Western cultures may curl their index finger with the palm facing upwards. This action, however, is considered extremely rude in many Asian cultures including Malaysia, while doing so in the Philippines can even get a person arrested! In such cultures, it is generally respectful to invite a person over with a slight bow and with one’s arm suggesting the direction.



  1. Proximity / Personal Space

In many Western cultures, a person who leans forward while maintaining a comfortable space when others are talking often denotes interest and engagement. In most Asian cultures though, this may be an intrusion into one’s personal space as they generally prefer to maintain a more comfortable distance with individuals they do not have a close relationship with.


While this article is not meant to be a foolproof guide to communicating nonverbally in Malaysia, it helps one to see that every culture uses and interprets body language differently. Western cultures are generally more expressive than most Asian cultures. Adding to the complexity is one’s educational background or organizational culture that might change the way they perceive another person’s body language (e.g., an Asian manager educated in the West may appreciate a subordinate who portrays confidence while a typical Asian manager may prefer an employee who is more modest and reserved). This is where Cultural intelligence (CQ) plays an essential role in helping us to decipher nonverbal cues with higher accuracy. When in doubt, it is often wise to tone down on the gestures and observe others’ reactions, ask, and mimic the locals.

Our intercultural training programs can help build trusting relationships and stronger collaboration between your staff by addressing and overcoming cultural barriers. Reach out to us for more details!

By: Boleh Blogger