When going on assignment, many people will often focus on learning the host country’s official language. But as expats, we can also aid our understanding of a new culture by studying how locals express themselves through non-verbal communication.
The spoken word’s limitations
When living overseas, knowing how to speak and/or understand some of your host country’s official language is never going to hurt your chances of understanding, or being understood by, a local. You might even be lucky enough to speak their native tongue quite fluently. But speech only goes so far. It’s also very helpful to be able to read how they use body language. You may even find there are times when being able to interpret non-verbal communication is more helpful than understanding the local lingo. You may be able to pick up on what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling or what they are expecting to happen in a certain situation.
No universal body language
For those keen to dig deeply into the subject, experts in ‘clean communication’ advise studying the principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to increase awareness of body language. Essentially, NLP is an approach to communication and personal development, which explores the connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioural patterns learned through experience (programming).
If that sounds a little too dense and academic for your tastes, you could just research general body language across cultures and then familiarise yourself with how people in your host country interact with each other. How do they view eye contact, and how do they feel about physical contact, where do they stand on proximity? What finger gestures are hands down the worst kind to make? Nowadays, you can find sufficient insights quite easily on the internet.
Getting a feel for it
But just like any language, practice makes perfect! That means getting out of the expat bubble and spending time among the locals, even if you’re primarily observing. This is the most effective way to ‘get a feel’ for how locals express themselves with non-verbal communication. Of course, none of this is to suggest that we must start mimicking the actions of locals 24/7. But understanding how people in your host country use body language will certainly help you read situations and communicate with locals more clearly.
Photo: Tactical Technology – Flickr