March 12, 2010, Newsletter Issue #71: The Non-Verbal Side of Languages

Tip of the Week

In many foreign cultures, learning the language is just a start. Communication can be much more complex in other lands where how one stands, sits, gestures, and so forth can send complex non-verbal signals. There is plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding; in some cultures the affirmative “thumbs-up” sign can be taken as an obscene gesture, as can the “okay” gesture where the tips of the forefinger and thumb touch. Wearing colors with cultural or national significance can make you appear gauche. Even something a simple as a nod can be confusing. In certain parts of northern Greece, nodding one's head back briefly is used to reinforce the word “no”. For those of us who spent their lives associating a nod with “yes”, this comes as a bit of a shock. Non-verbal communication is usually left out of most language programs available commercially, but it should not be neglected. After all any insult, no matter how unintentional, can undermine even the best student of languages. In fact if you do learn to speak the language fairly well but neglect the manners, customs, and non-verbal cues, they may well assume that you innocent gaffe was a deliberate affront.

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