Body Language Isn't Equal: Cultural Differences Matter

While visiting Australia in 1992, President George H.W. Bush tried to give the peace sign to a group of protesting farmers. But his palms were inward — not outward — when he flashed the “V” sign, and the natives were terribly insulted. In their culture, that sign means “fuck you.”

Cultural differences in body language matter, and it’s important for communicators to understand precisely what their actions are saying to their audiences.

I recently stumbled onto the results of a fascinating body language study, published by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), that shows how these differences play out in real life:

Is this boy showing the peace sign or using a vulgar expression?

“Want to know how a Japanese person is feeling? Pay attention to the tone of his voice, not his face….A new study examines how Dutch and Japanese people assess others’ emotions and finds that Dutch people pay attention to the facial expression more than Japanese people do.

For the study, [Akihiro Tanaka of Waseda Institute for Advanced Study in Japan] and colleagues made a video of actors saying a phrase with a neutral meaning—’Is that so?’—two ways: angrily and happily. This was done in both Japanese and Dutch. Then they edited the videos so that they also had recordings of someone saying the phrase angrily but with a happy face, and happily with an angry face. Volunteers watched the videos in their native language and in the other language and were asked whether the person was happy or angry. They found that Japanese participants paid attention to the voice more than Dutch people did—even when they were instructed to judge the emotion by the faces and to ignore the voice.

Tanaka speculates, ‘I think Japanese people tend to hide their negative emotions by smiling, but it’s more difficult to hide negative emotions in the voice.’ Therefore, Japanese people may be used to listening for emotional cues. This could lead to confusion when a Dutch person, who is used to the voice and the face matching, talks with a Japanese person; they may see a smiling face and think everything is fine, while failing to notice the upset tone in the voice.”

You can see the full APS press release here.


Much of the media training advice on this blog – particularly regarding body language – applies most directly to spokespersons in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the majority of Europe. Parts of Central and South America adhere to some similar body language rules as well, but Arab and Asian cultures tend to be quite different.

In Asian cultures, for example, maintaining direct eye contact could be perceived as aggressive and rude, not attentive and polite.

Knowing the cultural communication differences is critical for effective cross-cultural communications. I’ll post new studies I find along the way, and invite you to share links with me for other relevant articles. 

Is your executive team long overdue for a media training session? Please contact us to learn more about our customized media training workshops.