In June, I was able to take the most amazing trip of my life. I spent 10 days in China, in both Beijing and Dalian, and during my time there, I learned a valuable lesson in the importance of non-verbal communication.
While the thought of traveling to China was intimidating, I was lucky enough to have a bi-lingual tour guide and travel companion in my boyfriend. It didn’t take long, however, to realize that, without him to facilitate any communication, I was pretty lost. I couldn’t read anything unless it had a phonetic translation, and even then I didn’t know what it meant, I couldn’t understand the chatter going on all around me, I couldn’t speak to any of locals, including to do simple things like order food or ask for directions. I wanted to interact with many of the Chinese people we met, so I learned to rely heavily on body language and non-verbal cues to communicate.
When I felt brave enough to venture out a bit on my own, I relied on hand signals when paying for things, making numbers with my hands and nodding my head, and luckily many of the menus displayed photos of each dish, so I could point to what I wanted to order. On the few occasions when I took a cab on my own, my only form of communication was through pointing left, right or straight.
The last thing I wanted to be was an inconsiderate, ignorant tourist, and I tried my best to communicate when I needed to. Thankfully, I encountered fantastically patient, encouraging people. From experiencing that side of the language barrier, I learned how to better express myself through my body language, and as a culture with so many non-verbal cues, I became much more aware of how my body language comes across to others. Being in a business that revolves around communication in all forms, I’ve made it a goal in my personal and professional life to be more cognizant of my body language, and I do find myself noticing it more in others.
For those in the professional world, some things I like to keep in mind to ensure a positive response from my body language:
~ Eye contact. Eye contact is huge in any kind of interaction, whether it’s making a first impression, attending a group meeting or giving a presentation. Eye contact communicates respect and attentiveness, and is the simplest thing you can do to up your body language game. I learned that, for the Chinese, wearing sunglasses in a social situation can sometimes be perceived as distrustful because they cannot see your eyes, and therefore cannot read your reactions or expressions as well.
~ Know what to do with your hands. It can be very difficult, but try not to fidget, conveying nervousness, and if standing, aim to keep your hands still at torso-level, between your hips and shoulders.
~ Keep the space open. Unless in a dining situation, keep the space between you and your peer or audience as open and clear as possible, minimizing distractions and visual barriers and encouraging collaboration.
~ Actually Listen. Even though I had no idea about what was being said in most of the conversations around me, I still tried to listen and pick up on any possible cues. I came to learn what it sounded like when my boyfriend was asked, “does she like the food?” and I would enthusiastically nod my head (even if the food was a bit… scary), which would typically produce a chuckle or two. Being an engaged listener can really encourage your audience to open up to you when they know you are interested in what they’re saying.
~ Smiling’s my favorite. A genuine smile works wonders for your mood, and communication, and is just a healthy habit in general that spans all language barriers. Give it a shot.
Written By Allison Huseman