Travel Hacks

Body Language & Cultural Norms Around the World

Natalie Hagen
January 16, 2024

Body Language & Cultural Differences Abroad

When traveling to a new place, we’re used to looking up the best restaurants, the landmarks and monuments we want to see, a few words in the native language; but how many of us research the cultural differences of a new place? For example, body language?

We may be familiar with cultural differences such as the businesses in Spain closing in the afternoon for a siesta or Italians considering it improper to drink coffee in the afternoon. However, we can often overlook something as important as body language and what is appropriate in each country. In fact, not understanding the differences in body language could make for some serious cultural faux-pas.

Things such as head movement and eye contact can seem so normal and internationally understood. However, strong eye contact in Japan can make people feel uncomfortable whereas it’s totally normal in most Western cultures. Similarly, in Japan a head nod signifies that you have been heard, but not that the other party necessarily agrees. Most are used to a head nod signifying complete agreement.

In many European cultures you are often greeted with a kiss, whereas in Western cultures a handshake is typical. Asian cultures consider kissing intimate and instead they greet with a bow, such as in Japan. Filipinos use their lips to point to something while Americans point with their fingers.

Physical proximity and touch are  also important to note when traveling to a foreign country. In the US it is normal to greet with hugs and handshakes, whereas British culture might find that a bit odd. In Chinese culture it is normal to stand close to one another, whereas Americans might find this odd since they are used to more space. Latin cultures on the other hand are very affectionate so they stand closer together.

Another important aspect of body language that is often overlooked are finger signs and arm gestures. A sign that might mean “ok” in the US can signify an obscenity in Arabic or Latin cultures. Italian and Spanish cultures talk with their hands (so beware of flying arms!), whereas it’s less common and can seem over the top in others. In Finland crossing your arms is considered arrogant, but in the US it can simply mean you’re cold.

If you’re unsure of what is appropriate in a foreign culture, the best thing to do is observe the natives. Mirroring what they do will help you to avoid any cultural body language mistakes. Of course, doing your research ahead of time never hurts either. Click the infographic below from TakeLessons to help you learn how to read body language with more examples from around the world. You’ll be set for your next trip no matter where it is!  

Click the infographic!
Natalie Hagen
Natalie Hagen is a part of the content marketing team at She creates content for over 15 social media accounts and has helped to establish and grow brand presence through social media. She graduated from FIDM with a degree in Merchandise Marketing and has more pairs of shoes than any one woman should own.


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