Body Language Around the World

Too Close for Comfort?

When Jacquie was in Paris for the first time, she found riding in elevators to be very disconcerting—people always seemed to stand much too close. In fact, if a man got on and moved into ”her” space, she often found the proximity threatening enough to make her get off at the next floor. Much later, back in Canada, Jacquie was talking to a French friend who recounted her experience in elevators as a Parisian in Canada. This friend had gone to the doctor to see if she had some unbeknownst, terrible body odour problem, because when people entered the same elevator, they would immediately move away to the other side.

What is one gesture that means the same all over the world, and is used by people in the remote Amazon jungle as well on the busy streets of Vancouver?


The smile. The smile may be the one and only gesture that can be understood worldwide.


Min, from Parksville.


Body language varies from culture to culture and even from region to region in some countries. Non-verbal cues that are appropriate in Canada can have a very different meaning in other cultures. The following examples show a range of possible cultural interpretations of body language.






Body Language Interpretations
Thumbs Up In North America, this
means hitch hiking,
or good job.
In Germany, it
means number one,
and in Japan,
number five.
In Australia and
Nigeria, this is an
with Index
Common in North
America and Europe.
Considered impolite
in Japan and China.
In these countries
people point using
the whole hand.
Touching A pat on the shoulder
or forearm is a
common way to
express “good work”
in North American
culture. Hand shaking
is a common greeting
in many Western
In many Asian
cultures, people
typically don’t touch
Some Islamic and
Hindu cultures
typically don’t
touch with the left
North Americans
stand approximately
an arms length away.
Asians, especially
Japanese, tend to
stand more than an
arms length away.
Latin Americans
and Middle
typically stand less
than an arms
length away.
Eye Contact Direct eye contact is
considered positive
for most North Americans.
People in Arabic
cultures make
prolonged eye
Japanese, Latin
American, and
Caribbean people
may avoid eye
contact to show


  Copyright 2009 BC Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development