Mr. Garcia, a businessman from Madrid, Spain, is speaking English to one of his customers, Mr. Patton, from Vancouver, Canada. As they speak, a bystander notices that as Mr. Garcia slowly steps closer to Mr. Patton, the latter slowly steps away. This slow dance continues throughout the conversation until Mr. Patton is literally against the wall. He now crosses his arms in front of him. Mr. Patton appears nervous and a little annoyed; Mr. Garcia, aware of this, thinks he is not explaining himself well enough in English, even though Mr. Patton fully understands him. Thinking the business deal has gone sour, Mr. Garcia excuses himself and leaves.
What is going on here? If Mr. Garcia or any other non-native English speaking businessman, student, immigrant, or tourist had been aware of English body language, this unfortunate incident could have been avoided. Among English speakers, personal space is very important; indeed, personal space is important in all languages, but the distance considered critical to trigger discomfort differs. Spanish speakers tolerate a much closer speaking distance, a distance of some 30 centimeters, which is about half that which English speakers prefer. Thus, a Spanish speaker will instinctively move in closer to talk with an English speaker, who instinctively moves away, closer to his preferred speaking distance.
Body language is one kind of nonverbal communication, such as winking (to indicate "I'm kidding" or a sexual advance), or arms held akimbo (in some cultures, merely resting; in others, a threatening or defiant stance). This communication can, on occasion, be even more important than the actual words spoken.
Take winking for example. In most cases, English speakers will wink (the closing of only one eye) at each other to show that they are not serious about what they are saying. They may also cross their middle finger over their index finger to indicate the same thing. These gestures are extremely important as they virtually negate what the speaker says.
Another example is eye contact. In many American Indian and East Asian cultures, respect is shown by not looking directly into the eyes of a person considered of a higher social class than oneself. For Western Europeans, the opposite is true. For them, anything less than full eye contact is considered disrespectful or even devious. Problems have arisen when Chinese or Korean school children enter American or European schools. Western teachers assume that these children are "up to something" or that they are showing disrespect, when, in actuality, they are behaving correctly for their own culture. One Chinese child was denied entry into a gifted students' school because he was considered "lacking leadership qualities" despite his overall excellence in his academic and interpersonal relations. When it was pointed out that Chinese children are taught not to be aggressive (show leadership qualities), the school reconsidered and admitted the lad.
Sometimes gestures used in different languages have contrary meanings. This can produce a humorous effect. In Vietnam and China, the gesture for "come here" is quite similar to that of waving "good-bye" in English. Thus, when speakers of these two cultures are leaving each other, if the English speaker gestures "good-bye," the Far Eastern speaker may misinterpret the signal as meaning, "come back here."
Learning body gestures is rather difficult from textbooks. The best way to learn gestures —— for any language or culture —— is to stay a while in a foreign country to learn not only what people say but how they say it. For most people, the learning of body language is an exciting and charming aspect of learning a foreign language.