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Business Hacks –
Body language and hand signals

28.03.2017 from Olimpia Best

Working for the HRS Group means working for an international company and communicating with colleagues from all over the world. E.g., we have locations in Russia, Brazil, Australia and Europe. But a good knowledge of foreign languages is not always enough when it comes to gestural and facial expressions. Better keep your fingers to yourself and don’t use seemingly harmless hand signals in foreign countries – they can get you in trouble. E.g., the greetings around the world differ. In Germany, we are used to shaking hands with people with whom we don’t have an intimate or very personal relation. However, Brazilians more often salute each other with one, two or three kisses on the cheek – depending on the region. Those cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings:
“I went to the US to study and work and I knew they value their personal space but when you forget the people you just met are from different nationalities and cultures, you do what you are used to and go kiss them to say hi or goodbye. It is really funny to remember the faces when I was getting closer.” (Katia Bernini, HRS Brazil)
To prevent embarrassing situations we show you gestures to avoid in cross-cultural business and explain the different meanings. Because non-verbal misunderstandings don’t only happen between different continents – even in Europe our body language is not an universal communication tool. Have you ever requested a phone call in Italy by showing a hand signal and wondered how you end up drinking beer in a bar? Read on to find the answer.

1. Victory sign
The gesture of the V-sign has internationally many different meanings. In Germany and in most of the western countries it is a sign for the victory. In USA it is a harmless backwards gesture for peace. Moreover, some Asians – especially teenagers – use the two fingers on photos to express wellbeing or to pose.
But be careful! In British or English countries as well as in Malta, New Zealand or Australia it has the same meaning like giving someone the finger.
“It depends which way the V is facing. Palm towards recipient would be a peace sign, while palm towards the body would be a rude gesture.” (Lynsey Potts, Lido Group Australia)


2. OK sign
In Germany, UK and Canada a circle consisting of thumb and forefinger stands for “everything is OK”. Or if you show the gesture during lunch, it means “delicious”. But the meaning is not the same in every country: In Brazil and Turkey it symbolizes a human body orifice and is a very obscene gesture.
“This is seen as one of the rudest gestures you can make and should always be avoided!” (Katia Bernini, HRS Brazil)
By contrast, Belgians, Tunisians and French people use it to depict a “zero” or describe something/someone as useless.

3. Thumbs up
While in Germany, in most European cultures, in Brazil and in USA the thumb upturned is a positive sign of approval, the going-good sign is translated into a rude and offensive gesture in some Asian and African countries, e.g. Nigeria. In Turkey it is actually an invitation for homosexual practices.
“In Russia this ‘Like’-sign means that everything is OK or that somebody agrees with you.” (Julia Kalinichenko, HRS Russia)


4. To shake one’s head
Positive and negative answers are shown differently all over the world, too. For example in India, they shake their head right and left to say “yes” which is similar to a negation in Germany and most other countries. In Ethiopia people put back their head to signalize agreement on the one hand. But on the other hand again, this is a sign for “no” in many Arabic cultures. Very confusing!

5. Phone gesture
The phone gesture can result in funny misunderstandings. When you splay out your thumb and little finger close to your ear most people in Germany, USA and West Africa will interpret the sign as a phone request which means: “Call me”. However it could be worse, if you put the thumb near the mouth, in Italy this hand signal invites the other person to have a drink with you and in Hawaii and Australia this is how the surfers say hello to each other.
“It is also used in the Australia outback to tame and hypnotize wild animals – you may have seen this in the movie Crocodile Dundee.” (Peter Beveridge, Lido Group Australia)


Every country has its own way dealing with body language and hand signs, e.g. in France:
“Hand signals are quite common in day to day life. They are used to play with children, sending love and kisses to your companion as well as to insult somebody – especially in the traffic jam.” (Sophie Caprioli, HRS France)
Our body language often conveys more than the words we use. At times, it can completely change our words’ meaning.

Our tip: it is best to avoid using any single finger as a gesture – unless you are absolutely sure it is appropriate for a particular culture or country. Open-handed gestures, with all fingers generally together, is usually considered the safest approach. If however an ambiguous gesture happens inadvertently, then an open handling with the situation is the best way to clear up the misunderstanding for good.

Would you like to work with international colleagues? Apply here for one of our vacant positions!