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Published on Feb 26, 2013 in Featured Articles, News, slider

Body Language and Gestures Differ Between China and the West

url-1Chinese and Westerners are sometimes on two different wavelengths with regards to body language and gestures. What means one thing to a Westerner may likely mean something totally different in China. In addition, both cultures have gestures and use body language in a manner that’s unique. Understanding this uniqueness, and these differences, is important if you’re conducting business in the Middle Kingdom.

A Smile: You would think that a smile is a smile. When we see someone smile we assume they’re satisfied and content. However, what if you tripped on a step, or spilled coffee on yourself, and someone was smiling at you? A Westerner might assume that this individual was happy with our misfortune or simply gloating at our clumsiness. Either way, we’d perceive the smile to be rude. In China, however, a smile under these circumstances would be considered polite. The smile would mean: it’s not a big deal or it could happen to anyone.

Space: With 1.3 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population, in an area not much different from that of the United States, the Chinese are used to being in close proximity to one another. China started out as an agrarian and collectivist society. Early in their history they formed communes and lived in close proximity to one another for mutual protection and to work towards a common goal. In these agricultural-based societies entire generations may be living together under the same roof, and a lack of space and privacy was an acknowledged part of life. As these agrarian families migrated, this expectation of closeness also migrated with them. For example: factory workers wouldn’t find it unusual to be housed with a number of other works in small housing quarters, family members from different generations may live together in a single dwelling to reduce living costs, and dorm rooms may be occupied by 6-8 people in a space where we would expect to house only 1 or 2 Westerners. Subways are crowded, buses are crowded, markets are crowded, and trains are crowded. However, even though this human density is normally a part of life, the Chinese don’t especially like such a “rack and stack” society. But they realize China is not going to change. There are just too many people for the area and infrastructure that’s available. Therefore, they tolerate it and, over time, accept it.

A Westerner’s outlook is completely different. We like a lot of space around us. We have a quarter of China’s population and we expect to live in a manner that gives us spacial autonomy. In fact, according to Jessica Chang of Universal Consensus, an alliance between Aon and Hewitt, most Westerners expect personal space which roughly encompasses a radius of 2.4 feet; any less than that and we feel uncomfortable. For example, many Westerners feel uneasy standing in a queue in China where the lines are so tightly packed you can “feel” the person behind you. You try and move forward to give yourself additional room and the person behind is right there with you. Moreover, if you leave too much space between you and the person in front of you, you very well may have someone cut in line and insert themselves in the small amount of space you’ve given yourself. The Chinese seem to deal with this far better than Westerners who long to return to their country’s spacial norms.

Staring or Gaping: In a Western country you would likely make the other party self-conscious and uncomfortable if you stared at them. It’s considered impolite. Not so in China. In China it’s not uncommon for someone to stare and gape at something they find curious, and they don’t give it a second thought. For example, my wife is blonde. Many times when we’re in China people will stop and stare at her, pointing her out to their friends. Their friends will also stare and gape. Very few in China would find this unusual. Staring and gaping are OK. It’s rude to a Westerner, but it’s an accepted part of Chinese life.

Feet: One’s feet are considered dirty in China and it’s therefore rude to point one’s feet at another person. For example, crossing your legs can be rude if you point your feet at another person. That’s why you’ll find that Chinese in business meetings will have both feet firmly on the floor. As in most places in the U.S., it’s also considered impolite in China to place one’s feet on a table or desk.

Pointing: Pointing with one’s finger at another person is considered bad form. And that’s not just pointing with the middle finger. Pointing any finger at another person is considered an accusatory gesture in China. Instead, you would use an open hand to point.

Using two hands:  When you’re presenting or receiving something, it’s important to give or receive it with two hands. For example, a business card should always be received and presented with both hands. This is a gesture of politeness.

Bowing: Don’t go overboard. Bowing is part of China’s ancient culture, but is now usually done only when you meet a senior government official or for someone who you hold in high esteem. Unlike Japan, a slight bow of the head will do, rather than a deeper bow or a bending from the waist. Most often bowing is not done in business meetings.

Backslapping and bear hugs: While Westerners may view these as signs of affection, the Chinese don’t know what to make of these gestures and are just as uncomfortable with the physical contact as we are. If you want to irritate and confuse them, this will do it.

Winking, whistling, and clicking fingers: While whistling and winking might be considered a sign of levity in the West, this is generally considered rude in China. Clicking one’s fingers is also considered rude.

Blowing your nose in a handkerchief: The Chinese consider blowing ones nose in a handkerchief, and returning it to one’s pocket, to be unsanitary and very American.

Uniquely Chinese

Thumbs up and tugging at one’s earlobe: This means that someone has done a great job and is a sign meant to compliment their outstanding achievement.

Raised pinky: This means poorly done or poor quality.

Touching one’s heart / touching one’s nose: In the West we often refer to ourselves by pointing to our heart. This, in essence, means me or I. In China, the same meaning is accomplished by touching one’s nose instead of one’s heart. Touching someone else’s nose is considered impolite.

Hand held out, palm facing down, finger’s rapidly waving: This means “come here.” The faster you waive your fingers, the more urgent your request. However, this gesture is used for children, waiters, taxis, and the like. It’s considered rude when it’s done to an older person. Instead, for an adult, eye contact should be made and, once established, a slight bow will politely summon them to you.

Putting the open palm of your hand upright: When you place an upright open palm beside your tea cup as its being refilled, you’re saying “thank you.”

The “V” sign: Whenever I see young people in China getting their photo taken, especially young girls, I usually see them give the sign of the “V” with their middle and index finger. In China this denotes happiness on the part of the person being photographed and is not meant to be reminiscent of the 60’s culture in the U.S.

Southern China and Hong Kong

Tapping two fingers: Not everyone in China is on the same page with gestures. For example, in southern China, after a speech or hosting a dinner, those around you may express their thanks by tapping two fingers on the table. This gesture is also used to signal thank you when your server is pouring you tea and will also denote to them that your tea cup is sufficiently full. Northern China is less familiar with this gesture.

Raising Your Fist: In Hong Kong, and various areas of southern China, this is considered an obscene gesture. Those in northern China won’t necessarily be offended by this gesture because it will have no meaning to them.

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