Research has shown that up to 90 percent of our communication with others is non-verbal. It proves the old adage that “It's not what you say, but how you say it." Learning how to present yourself can often be the key factor in having an enjoyable and stress-free time while abroad. Knowing that only 10 percent is verbal, how do we put our best foot forward when traveling and meeting new people?
Studies have confirmed that the first few minutes within meeting a new person or group of people is especially crucial. In fact, on average, people tend to place judgments and determine how they feel about someone within the first two to five minutes of meeting them.
Body language can be very confusing at times, especially when you find yourself far from home. The following are several universally-known hand signal and body language dos and don'ts that will help you communicate better while on the road.
21 "Thumbs Up"—Don't Try This in Greece
In the United States and other countries with strong Anglo-Saxon influence, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and even Singapore, the "thumbs up" sign typically has two basic meanings. First of all, it means, “Ok” or “good job." Second of all, it is a symbol used by travelers looking to flag down a car and catch a ride, (aka hitchhiking).
In Greece, however, the thumbs up sign has a rude and even vulgar meaning. Moral of the story, don’t ever hitchhike in Greece!
20 "Great"—Everything is A-OK unless you're in France
This gesture is very commonplace in most English speaking countries and has spread in popularity due to US influence in TV and films. The hand signal is accomplished by touching one's pointer finger to one's thumb—creating an “O." The remaining fingers reach straight up emulating a “K” letter. In the United States, the UK, Ireland, and Australia, this hand gesture commonly means “great job” or “excellent."
Do not use this signal to show your appreciation to a chef in France or Belgium, however. This signal would be a giant insult and would probably get you promptly removed from any dinner party guest list. In France or Belgium, this hand signal means “zero” or “worthless”.
19 Casual Touch—Hands Off If You're in England
Many cultures use casual touch in everyday conversation as a form of affection or to relay a point. It is considered not only widely accepted, but also polite behavior.
On the flip side, there are several cultures in which a casual touch can offend the person you are with, or worse, start an altercation. Countries in which touch is commonly used and accepted include; India, Turkey, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Russia, and parts of Asia.
Be careful when traveling to the US, England, Japan, Germany, Australia, Portugal, and Canada, however. In those countries, it can be considered offensive. While a high five and embrace on the basketball court after an exciting victory is completely acceptable in the US, if you try this at the grocery store or corner bar, you may find yourself in trouble.
18 Shaking Hands—Don't Shake On It in South Korea
In the United States, Canada, and much of Europe, shaking hands is a gesture that shows friendliness and respect. It can even be used to make a verbal contract or close business transactions. This is not the case for everywhere else in the world, however. In Russia, it's taboo to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex.
The culture of South Korea dictates that only the most senior or most accomplished person may initiate a handshake. And refrain from shaking hands in Thailand. An invitation to shake is met with what’s called a “wai.” This is when the person places their palms together at chest level and offers a shallow bow. The proper response here is to return the gesture and greet them with “Sawadee-krap” or “hello.”
17 Crossed Arms—Cross This One Out
This common body language signal is recognized by all cultures as the sign for "I'm nervous" and should be avoided in all social situations. Although you may only be cold and warming yourself up, or uncomfortable and using it as a soothing technique, this is almost universally interpreted as disinterest.
Some body language experts and top business professionals actually recommend leaving a conversation or meeting immediately when confronted with this universal “Don’t”.
16 Hands In Your Pockets—Keep 'Em Out
Although sometimes a natural and comfortable position, this is a big "no-no" in every culture. While you may think you look cool or nonchalant, you are actually subconsciously sending the message that you are untrustworthy. Without realizing why, people may also find themselves thinking that you have something to hide. If you are nervous about meeting someone or find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, resist the urge to hide your hands and hold something by your side instead.
Whether you're haggling in a marketplace in India or negotiating cab fare in Europe, this is the best way to win over the trust of strangers.
15 Hunched Over—Don't Be a Slouch
Slumped and hunched shoulders are often seen as a sign of unhappiness or even depression. In fact, studies have shown those with clinical depression often subconsciously slump their back and shoulders in social situations.
If you're looking to make friends in that Youth Hostel in Bangkok or chat with that cute stranger in Berlin, first consciously make the effort to sit up straight with your head held high. This not only gives you a projected sense of confidence, but it has also been proven to increase a person's likability.
14 Watch Your Feet—A Few Pointers
Dating gurus will tell you this is the “kiss of death." Our feet often unconsciously express what we are really feeling or where we would rather be. If your toes are pointed away from the person you are with, this tells that person you’d rather be elsewhere. Next time you are in a crowded bar, pay attention to everyone’s feet. They will tell you how interested they are in their conversation or date.
This body language tip can help travelers as well. In countries where you don't know the language or aren't familiar with the culture, it can be difficult to tell if you've overstayed your visit at that Airbnb in France or if that culture faux pas in Russia warrants an apology.
Watching someone's feet can provide clues in situations where normal social cues are elusive or confusing.
13 Seek, Don't Hide—Keep Your Purse By Your Side
When you're communicating with a stranger, especially in a language you don't know very well, a natural reaction may be to place a barrier between yourself and the person with whom you are conversing. It's a subconscious reaction and we do it without thinking when we're feeling nervous or uncomfortable.
Believe it or not, however, by placing that notebook or pen between yourself or someone else, you're unconsciously showing shyness, uncertainty, and resistance. Always place items by your side, behind you, or just keep them in your purse. This will allow for a more open and comfortable dialog.
12 Don't Live on the Edge (of Your Seat)
We all have seen that action scene that has us literally on the edge of our seat. Although this is acceptable at the movie theatre, it is not a good idea elsewhere. Sitting on the edge of your seat during a conversation communicates uneasiness and instability. This is interpreted as being “on the edge”—both mentally and physically.
In order to appear engaged while talking to that tour guide or host family member, lean forward but keep your backside planted squarely toward the back of the chair.
11 Smile—Don't Fake It
According to numerous studies, human beings are exceptionally good at spotting a fake smile. Our brains evolved to spot differences between safe and unsafe people, and interpreting a smile is one of the ways we do this. When a smile is genuine, it is seen throughout the entirety of the face. From the eyes to the nose and of course, the mouth.
Next time you feel yourself faking a smile—whether it be for an Insta photo with a friend or while thanking the doorman at that hotel in Prague, just think of a positive memory or funny story you heard. This will not only make you appear genuine, it will actually make you feel happier as well.
10 Over Blinking—Blink and You'll Miss It
Blinking is normal and necessary for a variety of reasons. Over blinking, however, is seen as a sign of nervousness and anxiety. Observe the way your eyes work the next time you are in front of the mirror. Watch how you feel when you blink excessively versus when you are blinking in a normal manner. The simple act of blinking normally can ease tension and nervousness during a conversation. This can prove helpful when you find yourself in a confrontational situation while on the road.
9 Mirror Image
You can always tell when two people are interested in one another, because they will often subconsciously mirror that persons expressions and body language.
This mirroring shows the other person we are like them and creates camaraderie very quickly. While this is a great technique to use for job interviews and first dates, it's also a great one to use when communicating with someone in a foreign language. That hotel clerk may not fully understand what you're saying and that shop keeper may still be hesitant to give you a discount, but they'll both subconsciously pick up on the cue that you're on their side.
8 Put the Phone Away
The best way to show someone that you value their insight and time is to give it to them. This means not replying to that text message or glancing at your watch mid-conversation.
This respectful practice will not only help you stay in the moment while you're traveling, but it'll also show everyone you meet that you're a caring, considerate person and a worthwhile friend.
Think about it: How many times have you been out to dinner with some friends and needed to repeat your question because the person you're talking to just had to check their phone? It's a little annoying, to be frank.
7 Nod It
The common advice "just smile and nod" when immersed in an unfamiliar culture is more than just a piece of passing wisdom. Several scientific studies support the assertion that nodding (and smiling) can make you seem like an empathetic and attentive listener.
Nodding is an essential communication gesture that signifies we agree with a person and understand what is being said. This allows the speaker to have confidence in the listener and his or her ability to interpret meaning. Be cautious, however, about nodding too much. This can be seen as a sign of weakness or indifference.
6 See Eye-to-Eye
Nothing says “I’m completely focused on you” more than eye contact. It not only conveys confidence on your end, but it also shows the other person you value what is being said.
Again, be careful to avoid too much or too little sustained eye contact. The former can be seen as a sign of aggression. The latter can be observed as being dishonest. A good rule of thumb is to hold their gaze for just a second or two at a time, but do it often.
5 Talk With Your Hands
You don't have to be from Italy to utilize this body language trick. Using your hands to gesture while talking is an easy way to incorporate meaning into your conversation.
Be measured in the way you use your hands and be careful to not go over the top with them. We certainly don't want to be interacting with someone who looks like one of those inflatable tube men flailing above second-hand car yards, but a decent amount of movement is good.
Correctly utilized, this can make you appear more confident, assured, and credible.
4 Slow Down
If you'd like to appear more assertive, confident and intelligent in your conversations, just slow down. Think James Bond—cool, calm and collected. Take a deep breath, focus on your movements and intentionally slow down your speech and body movements.
Pretend you are walking across a pool—very deliberate in your movements and confident in your surroundings. You will be amazed at how much more positive attention you garner by utilizing this simple trick.
3 The Write Stuff
Writing things down lets other know that you value what they are saying and you are engaged in the conversation. This is most important in business settings and could set you apart from your colleagues. As an added bonus, studies have shown that writing things down significantly increases memory retention.
If you are planning on traveling abroad for business, you can use this tip in interactions with your foreign business counterparts as well. If nothing else, it can help make sure that everyone is on the same page in their communication.
2 Go Big or Go Home
Subtle gestures that take up space make you appear more comfortable and confident. Next time you are in a business meeting, watch how the boss projects himself or herself; notice how he or she commands the attention of the room by their mere presence.
You can implement this body language hack while abroad by sitting or standing with your legs shoulder length apart and your hands on your hips, elbows pointing out. This will make any would-be muggers, thieves or impaired backpacker think twice before approaching you.
1 Laugh It Up
It's true what they say: We all smile (and laugh) in the same language.
Laughter is an excellent way to break the tension in a room or endear you positively to strangers. When used appropriately, this relays a sense of joy, happiness, and confidence. Laughter is also known to be contagious. When a group laughs together, studies have shown they become closer emotionally and tend to have a higher degree of trust for each other.
References: Psychology Today, The New York Times, Wikipedia, MindTools.com