Tips for Productive Body Language Movements in int’l Business Settings

Communications as a bridge-builder is one of the most powerful tools used by global mobility specialists.  Clarity in terms and message, as well as a respectful approach, can go a long way in securing important partnerships or signing on valuable assignees. However, as interaction with foreign colleagues becomes more extensive, the non-verbal kind of communications becomes more important, especially when applied to international settings.

There are unspoken rules when it comes to displaying demeanor. Tone of voice, hand signals, posture, and distance speak louder than words. Crossed arms often indicate a hostile defensive attitude. Eyes that continually wander to the right can mean that their owner is lying. A strong grip of a handshake can mean confidence and warmth. Giving a thumbs-up implies approval or moving forward.

The meaning of body language and even hand signals, though, can vary in different countries. So can approach. For example, the atypical American candor that solves a lot of business issues in the U.S.A. might be seen as emotionally insensitive by Asians who prefer to speak in polite tones even in an argument. The American business inclination to treat everyone as equals, regardless of their actual age, might be alarming in Japanese or Chinese communities where seniority and age are accorded a lot of deference and respect.

Your assignees moving to the U.S. would have to acclimatize themselves and adjust to American business body language and symbols. Here are a few ways to advise them to make them more at home in their relocated country, while removing all signs of awkwardness:

Communication through senses


The OK sign (creating a circle by connecting your thumb and your forefinger):  This positive sign usually denoting “Let’s go!” is almost universal, but it can still have other and more negative connotations with other ethnicities. Your French and Japanese assignees would have to be advised about this sign. It is never used in France where it means “no value.” Meanwhile, the Japanese use it as an inference to money.

The V sign is welcome in the U.S. where it is a tactile celebration of victory. We raise your fingers that way to show that our home team won. But assignees from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Australia might do a double take. In these countries, the V sign displays a rude defiance of authority.  Our colleagues Down Under would have to be told of the different meaning we give it.

Use of arms to drive home a point. Northern Europeans wave or shake their arms and hands to illustrate an example, or sometimes simply because they are excited about the conversation. People from the Mediterranean do the same but less showy. The Japanese might find this behavior obtrusive, because they keep their arms at their sides at all times during business meetings. All of them would find it easy to adjust as far as this body language is concerned in the U.S. Some of us are demonstrative in our expression, while others are more reticent.

Extended eye contact – Like our North European friends, we Americans see extended eye contact during meetings as indicating interest in the topic. African and Latin American assignees would have to be informed about this positive meaning. In their home ground, stares can mean a business challenge.

The good luck sign:  We cross our fingers to wish our partner or friend good luck. Again, this seems to be a universally accepted sign, especially in Europe. The one exception is Vietnam. Crossed fingers represent female genitalia. You might want to give your Vietnamese assignee the heads-up about this particular hand symbol, especially if she is female.

Take time out to study up on these unspoken rules before hiring your next foreign assignee. Aside from the usual reference materials, good resources can come from your network of diplomats, globe-trotting businessmen, and corporate housing executives who have regular interaction with the foreign community. A few but strategic hand signals in the future just might help your next champion assignee.