By Kate Sullivan

11 October 2017 - 12:01

Woman laughing. Photo (c) Tanja Heffner, used under licence and adapted from the original.
'Many experts would advise you that smiling is culturally universal.' Image ©

Tanja Heffner, used under licence and adapted from the original.

How can you better understand body language to feel more confident and be more effective in a range of situations? We asked Kate Sullivan, the British Council's expert on the subject.

Avoid broad generalisations

If you are struggling to understand how to interpret body language of colleagues in different cultural contexts and how to respond, you may find yourself searching for a checklist of dos and don'ts. But this isn't necessarily the best approach. Generalisations might seem useful to prepare us for new intercultural situations, but they are often over-simplified, and can be stereotyped at times. If we take one-size-fits-all advice at face value, the results can be disastrous.

Look for more than one instance of body language

You can start your interpretation by analysing groups, or 'clusters' of movements, postures and expressions, rather than looking at each gesture in isolation.

For example, imagine that you are presenting an idea for a new process in a meeting, and your boss is smiling. Many experts would advise you that smiling is culturally universal, so you might assume that your boss must be happy with your presentation. However, making this assumption without deeper investigation could prove problematic. If you take a second look at your boss, you might notice that she is also laughing slightly, looking down and fiddling with her pen. This could mean a range of different things.

Check if what someone does matches what they say

How can you decode your boss's reaction correctly? The answer is to check that your analysis of their body language matches with what the person says and how they say it. This is known as 'congruence'.

Your boss then comments in a firm, steady voice: 'We should look at the details of this again'. By examining  her statement, along with her tone of voice, you will realise that your boss is not as happy with your presentation as you first assumed.

Ask yourself why people might behave in a certain way

Examining a person's cultural identity, and how this affects their behaviour in specific contexts, can help you gain deeper insight into their body language, words, and tone of voice. To fully understand your boss's reaction, you will need to reflect on her beliefs, values and preferences, as well as motivation in the situation. She may be behaving in this way because she has particular expectations of how to act in team meetings, or due to a certain image she wants to project to the team. In this case, the leader seems to project that she is serious, careful, detailed and in control.

To understand the cultural influences that have led to her behaviour, it is first important to understand what cultural identity is. Many people use the terms 'culture' and 'nationality’ interchangeably. However, generalising based only on nationality can be risky. To help avoid this, the British Council has developed a description of culture, based on the latest research in the field by Prof. Adrian Holliday from Canterbury Christ Church University:

‘An individual’s cultural identity is made up of community, group and family values, beliefs and practices that:

  • are important to them
  • influence their behaviours and preferences
  • contribute to their sense of identity and belonging’.

We can see from this that culture is a group influence and it affects our practices, preferences and behaviour. Thinking about your boss, you may know that certain groups have influenced her behaviour as a leader in meetings: Her education, which emphasised knowing the details and being careful to get good results; her departmental culture that prides itself on getting things right the first time and reducing risk; and the hierarchical organisational culture that means she is responsible for decision-making and will be judged on the outcomes. These influences combined have led her to project a serious, careful, detailed and in-control image in this meeting.

However, we can’t assume that cultural identity is always the main influence on someone’s behaviour. It could be their personality, or maybe they are just having a bad day and react in a certain way.

React appropriately to others’ messages

Once you’ve figured out the meaning of someone’s body language and its influences, you only have a split second to react. To avoid misinterpreting someone’s meaning, it’s a good idea to ask follow-up questions. With some people, you can check that you’ve understood correctly by asking them directly: 'So, you think we should make some adjustments to the process?'

With others, you may need to be less direct: 'Could you explain your thinking a bit more?' You should then observe their reaction very closely, including body language, what they say and how they say it. Once they have finished, you can paraphrase to confirm your understanding of the main points.

What to do when something makes you uncomfortable

In some cultural contexts, you may encounter a situation where the body language of another person might go against your beliefs, values or preferences. This can make for an uncomfortable situation.

Recently, I was in a meeting with a potential client and he put the palm of his hand in front of my face – not once, but three times. Each time it happened, I could feel myself getting more and more annoyed until I wanted to tell him to stop. He seemed to think this was a normal gesture when he wanted to interrupt me.

If you encounter body language from others which makes you feel uncomfortable, try one of the following techniques:

  • Don’t react right away.
  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Recognise your own emotions.
  • Acknowledge different preferences without judging.
  • Try to keep your expression neutral.
  • Focus on something else (e.g., what they are saying. Ask them a question if you need something specific to focus on).
  • Pause the conversation (e.g., by taking something out of your bag).
  • Use humour.
  • Express your feelings in an indirect way.
  • Directly tell someone you feel uncomfortable.
  • Bring someone else into the conversation, which will make the other person adjust their body language.
  • Reflect on the situation later to think of why it happened and how you might approach it if it happens again.

You will need to vary the technique depending on the relationship you have with the other person, the situation you are in, who else is present, the other person’s own behaviour and preferences (culturally influenced or not) and what has happened in the past. In the situation with your boss above, if her smiling, slight laughing and fiddling with her pen is bothering you, it would probably be best to do the following:

  1. Recognise your own emotions.
  2. Pause the conversation to give you a couple of seconds to calm down.
  3. Start to ask indirect questions.

In this context, you are not close to your boss. There are others in the meeting and there is a big power distance between you, especially as the organisation is quite hierarchical. She is serious and quite indirect and you should adapt to that.

For others, they may be closer to their bosses and others in the meeting. The organisational hierarchy is flatter, their boss less serious and more direct. In this case, you may be able to make a joke and tell the boss directly how you feel: 'Should I be worried about that?'

Remember that not all body language is related to culture, personality or what’s happening. If another person’s body language is making you feel unsafe, it’s important to tell someone and decide together on a plan of action.

Improve your cultural knowledge or that of your business through the British Council's training and courses.

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