There’s no getting around it: when you grow up in a certain region with specific types of gestures, behaviors or even speaking patterns, there is absolutely no guarantee that when you go to another country, those same mannerisms are going to be interpreted the same way. What can be a compliment or a show of affection in one culture or country can be a blistering insult in another. Here are some of the more unusual ways that differences between East and West or even North and South can differ when it comes to communication.
In North America and most of Europe, speaking is generally considered something done quickly and efficiently. In Japan, communication is a bit different, especially with regards to pauses in conversation. In Western communication, pauses are usually avoided, as they are usually perceived as awkward or a sign that the speaker is struggling to stay engaged in a conversation. In Japan, on the other hand, pauses are part of the conversation. Silence can be pleasant, or even be a statement in and of itself in Japanese communication. As you might imagine, this can make for confusing exchanges between Western speakers and Japanese speakers.
Observations About Weight
In Africa, it’s not uncommon to hear women greet friends with a comment about the other person having put on some weight. This is considered a compliment, and it means that someone has grown healthier, or perhaps has had a good time. It is not an accusation that someone is fat and needs to lose weight as it would normally be interpreted in North America, where any hint about weight gain can cause anxiety.
The “Okay” Gesture
Nonverbal communication, such as for scuba or sky diving where radio communication may not be available, the thumb and index finger forming a circle generally indicates an “okay” condition, to let others know that everything is fine. In Japan however, this is actually a business gesture, and giving this sign indicates that it is now time to discuss money matters. In the south of France, this same gesture means “This is worthless,” while in Spain, Eastern Europe, and some Latin American countries, it is a vulgar sexual gesture.
What is considered a private matter in the West is not necessarily under the same protection in China. So while people in the West may consider their salary, age, and marital status as things they wouldn’t openly discuss in public, to the Chinese these topics aren’t considered private at all and will regularly be brought up in discussion or questioning.
In Asian countries like Thailand, Japan, and Singapore, a “service charge” is normally included in any restaurant experience, which would be similar to a tip in many Western countries. Because of the included charge, people do not generally tip in these areas. It can be very confusing to the staff when Westerners attempt to do so. In Japan, they may even think that you are trying to correct an error they have made on the bill and may feel great embarrassment.