Don’t Point that Thing At Me!

Sometimes body language can be a problem. It always counts, and in international teams it can sometimes fail to carry the intended result.

When working with Japanese folks, I am always very careful not to point at them when indicating one person over another for example. For some reason using the American ‘pointing finger’ is considered slightly boorish. When I do need to point or indicate a physical emphasis on something or someone I have adopted the habit of using my whole arm, at a low elevation, with an open ‘back hand’ position. This seems to be OK for most situations and does not raise any alarm bells. I have noticed that some Japanese executives tend to point at things (on a spreadsheet for instance) with their middle finger. This is not the ‘preferred’ way to point in the US (it is considered vulgar).

In China, it is discourteous to point or use your hands very vigorously when talking. It is preferred to maintain a neutral posture. If you do need to point, it is best to use your whole hand as with the Japanese.

In contrast to this, Italians and Greeks (and New Yorkers for that matter) often can get a lot of mileage out of gesturing and pointing. In this sense, those cultures are a complete turnaround from where you would be in Asia. Most of the U.S. falls somewhere in the middle of the pointing continuum.

The ‘point’ of this discussion is that the devil is in the details: Getting things right with different cultures starts with understanding what is normal and desirable in different contexts. While you will almost always get a free pass on a lot of things, it is best to save up as much good will as possible by getting the little things like body language right (or as right as possible) from the beginning.

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Kevin Ready

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