Even with the best interpreter on the presence, when you are in a conversation with someone speaking a different language, more or less you would be communicating with that person using your body language. Although most of the time the body languages have similar meanings across different cultures, this may not always be the case; you definitely don’t want to run the risk that your body language offends the other party in an important event. Following are some body languages that may have different meanings across different cultures.
In the U.S., physical contact is quite common; a hug or a kiss when greeting an acquainted person is often deemed as a friendly act. However, physical contact can make people feel uncomfortable in some other Western countries. People from Britain and Italy would not enjoy much being touched by other people especially in a formal setting. Fortunately, a handshake is a greeting etiquette generally accepted, and it would be safe to shake hands when greeting people from a different culture.
In some Eastern countries, there may be a very different set of standards regarding body contact, and you should keep in mind that physical contact may be offensive for the local people unless you are sure that the physical contact is also generally accepted in that region.
Gestures used by people from different countries might be very different and can cause much misunderstanding if both parties are not aware of the differences. For example, if a person nods in the conversation, in many Western countries this would be a sign of approval. However, that may not be the case for people from Greece and Italy. In their culture, nodding up and down actually means the opposite: they can’t agree with what you have just said.
Finger gestures can cause much misunderstanding as well. Thumb-up, perceived as a positive sign in the U.S. and many other countries, has an offensive meaning in Sardinia and Greece.
Eye contact is strongly encouraged in Western countries, and avoiding eye-contact may be associated with the lack of confidence, honesty, or even respect in these countries. However, in some Asian countries, especially in Japan, eye contact would be deemed as overly aggressive. Staring at them may make them feel uncomfortable, and thus unnecessary eye contact should be avoided in the conversation.
It may be common for people to spread their arms when talking, but this may be considered as over-dramatic in the eyes of people from Northern Europe. Moreover, arm movements may be rude and disrespectful in some Asian countries like Japan.
In this era of globalization, people are more open to the custom of a different culture; however, if you are attending an important event with people coming from a different culture, try to do some research regarding body language in advance, and avoiding unnecessary body language would always be a good tip for you when you are not sure whether it has a similar meaning to people from a different culture.