Intercultural body language

The history of italian hand gestures. Screenshot taken from

Recently, when I was researching intercultural body language for one of my coachings on intercultural competence, I stumbled across a wonderful video on Italian hand gestures on The New York times. Expressive, dynamic, they colour the air with their secret meaning. Intercultural body language is really a language of its own. In every culture we can find it: Be it gestures to draw attention, to insult or to appease someone. It’s like a good riddle: once you understand it, it seems like it should have been clear from the very start.

The non-verbal culture clash

However, interpretations we grew used to can lead to misunderstandings: Just because one thinks the other understands, doesn’t mean they shares your view. My favorite example is case of the fingers pinched against the thumb:

In Italy this can mean anything from “What do you want?” to an angry “Who are you?”. Maybe not the best one to use in a pressured situation. So imagine an Italian policeman asking a traveler for identification and getting this one in return – not a good start, right?

For Israelis on the other hand, the same hand gesture held out in front of them means “wait a moment”. People like to use it while being on the telephone or occupied with something. No insult intended. Completely appropriate gesture to show a government official if you still need to find your ID.

There are plenty of examples like that when you sharpen your intercultural awareness: from the inverted victory sign – harmless in Germany, but the equivalent to a “f*** you!” in England – to the Indian sidewards headshake – which leads to confused questions of “was that a yes or a no?” in Europe, while in India it simply means “Okay, if you like. I don’t have strong feelings about this”. Taking a closer look at differences in intercultural body language opens up a wonderful playground of deciphering meaning.

Body language & career

The real fun, however, begins right there in your own country, in your own office. Everybody is conveying ideas, even if they don’t speak. To understand these meanings is a combination of knowledge, empathy and of paying attention to detail. So be aware of what you are saying. Your body might give you away.

New to this form of body language? Then try Michelle Powell’s article on “Five moves that make you a bad boss” as an introduction. I don’t agree with her view that a “good boss” is automatically someone who doesn’t use negative cues. In a competitive environment, you have to know these hidden meanings in order use and to read body language strategically – that’s what I teach in my female leadership coachees: You can only reach your goals if you know what you are doing and what you are reacting to. So know your tools. And take responsibility of how you use them. That is my advice to effective non-verbal communication – both in Italy, Germany or anywhere in the world.

Read more about body language and intercultural communication: