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What Do Gestures and Body Language Tell Us?

gestureBoth body language in general as well as its core element, gestures, represent a form of communication that is just as important as verbal language. For this reason, they must be taken into account when conversing with others, as it is very important to be able to know how to read the body language of people we are interacting with.

Those elements to be taken into account as non-verbal communication include, among other aspects, personal distance, physical contact, emotional expression, visual contact, voice tone and volume, and periods of silence.

Communication through body language is easy to understand and employ when dealing with speakers of the same language who come from the same culture and have similar personal characteristics. However, there are large differences between our normal gestures and those of another person from a distant geographic area that is culturally and/or linguistically distinct from our own.

In the case of interpreters, for example, it is very important for them to take into account these characteristics when performing their work, as the body language of each person can vary according to their language or where they live. They not only have to pay attention to the words of the person speaking, but also to their body language. This is important for interpreters at conferences, but it is even more so for interpreters who perform simultaneous or consecutive interpretations next to the speaker. A poor interpretation of a gesture could generate misunderstandings that result in listeners not comprehending the original message.

There are many gestures that people make unconsciously and, among groups who share the same culture, there is a tendency for the understanding of these gestures to be very quick.

Problems arise, however, when one gesture may mean the opposite, or even something completely different, in another part of the world.

For example, to say “no” in Bulgaria, one must move their head up and down (the exact opposite of what we are used to in Western cultures) and, vice versa, “yes” is indicated by moving one’s head side to side. Bulgaria is not the only country; this “opposite” system also can be seen in parts of India, Pakistan, and Turkey. As another example, in many Muslim countries, one can use their right hand only to eat and to give and receive money.

Body language and gestures play a very important role in our conversations with others. It is something to keep in mind when we travel or have conversations with someone who is not from our same cultural background.

Can you think of any gesture that has very different meanings across different cultures?

To view the Spanish version of this post, go to:

¿Qué nos dice el lenguaje gestual y corporal?