Gestures: Nonverbal Communication Around the World

elephant kissA kiss on both cheeks.  A slight bow.  A lengthy handshake.  A hug. Holding hands walking down the street.  A head “bobble”.  Nonverbal communication is as varied and fascinating as the cultures inhabiting this planet, and sometimes just as surprising or confusing.  In the month of February, when we in the States celebrate (or don’t, for philosophical reasons) a holiday centered on connecting with other people, let’s take a look at some of the different ways humans connect around the world.

Spain and South America

For those who come from a culture in which physical touch isn’t the norm between acquaintances, or even people we just met, a kiss on the cheek can seem a little jarring.  “Cheek kissing” can be used as a greeting, to give congratulations, or to show friendship, comfort, or respect.  Men and women, women and women, and – in certain cultures – men and men: everyone can participate in the ritual of a light kiss or two on the cheek, possibly accompanied by a hug or handshake.


You may have seen the wai in practice: a slight bow, with both hands pressed together in front of the body.  This prayer-like gesture can be used when entering or leaving someone’s home, or to express gratitude or apology.  Fun fact: this greeting was originally used to show that each individual wasn’t carrying any weapons (at least not in their hands).

Ghana and Tanzania

Holding hands is seen as a sign of romantic or familial affection in the United States.  When you visit Ghana or Tanzania, you may see men holding hands with their male friends.  In the States, one might assume that these men are in a romantic relationship.  In Africa, that’s not necessarily true: male friends often hold hands as a sign of friendship.  On the other hand, men and women generally won’t hold hands in public, as it could be considered improper.

Rather than tipping the head forward and back in a nod “yes” or side to side in a shake “no”, this motion moves the top of the head back and forth (and sometimes with a slightly circular pattern), resulting in what looks like a head “wobble” or “bobble”.  This gesture can mean “Yes”, “Good”, “Ok” or “I understand”, depending on the context.  It’s an intentionally ambiguous gesture that leaves the interpretation open to the person asking a question or making a request.  Why leave it open?  To be seen as accommodating or obliging: if a task is too much trouble, the person can interpret the head wobble as either a “yes” or a “no”, saving face for both parties.  (Heads up: keep your eyes open for the different meanings in each head movement by native “speakers” before you attempt it yourself!)

Regardless of where you are in the world, there’s a lot to learn from watching the way others interact.  When you go abroad, keep an open mind and an eye out for how your hosts interpret and use nonverbal communication.  You’ll give yourself the opportunity to learn two languages at once!

If you’ve already been abroad, was there any nonverbal language that you’d never seen or experienced before?


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