Gestures mean different things in different cultures. You probably know that in China, public burping is considered polite. And in many cultures, the middle finger isn’t offensive because it’s the pointer finger.
But what about smiling? You do a lot to maintain a healthy, shiny grin, but in some countries, you should save it for special occasions. So if you plan to travel or do business with someone from another culture, consider these pointers before flashing a customary smile.
Here at home, smiles convey a lot of different messages—pleasure, agreement, courtesy. But in China and other Asian cultures, it is somewhat the opposite. When you greet someone, a smile actually means confusion or embarrassment! If you’re meeting with an Asian business partner, for example, don’t assume that his smile means he understands you. And the same goes for you. Don’t get too generous with your smiles—the person you’re talking to might think you’re very embarrassed, and miscommunication will ensue. Find out more about how gestures differ between American and Asian cultures in this handy list.
Smiles are not so easy to come by in Russia as they are here in the US. In fact, if you smile at a stranger on the street in Moscow, you might find it returned with a scowl or an eyebrow raise. It’s not because these folks are rude—it’s because in this culture, smiles are used to hide emotions. As such, smiles are in bade taste. So if you, a happy-go-lucky American, smile everywhere you go in Russia, you’ll probably alienate friends instead of making them! To find out more about Russian culture, including how smiles are received, check out this blogger’s experience as a student.
In German-speaking countries, you won’t find hostility in response to your smile, but you won’t often get it returned, either. In this culture, smiles usually indicate a simple mind—if you’re not smiling for a particular reason, that is. Germans tend to smile just as much as an American if there is an obvious reason at hand, such as at a birthday party or in reception of a gift. But if you’re just smiling to be polite as you walk down the street, those around you might think you’ve got a screw loose. Read more about Germanic culture in this blog post.
Moving south of the equator, we find more smiles. Thailand is often called the Land of Smiles, which means, pretty obviously, that smiling is practiced quite often. However, unlike in the US where smiling is used to indicate only positive gestures, the Thai people also smile to indicate embarrassment, confusion, and even anger. So while you might feel more comfortable around a Thai person since smiles flow so freely, you probably won’t understand those smiles as well as you think you do. Do more research about Thai smiles at this helpful website.
Have you ever had a smile mishap?
Knowing how other cultures use smiles can help you be more sensitive to the people you encounter in life. Whether or not you travel, you will probably meet people from different countries—and now you know that an eyebrow raise or a scowl isn’t rude; it’s just how someone else understands a smile.
Have you ever smiled and gotten a negative reaction? Where were you, and what did you do? We want to hear your stories! If you leave a comment below, we will be sure to respond—and maybe other readers will too!