There’s a common saying – “actions speak louder than words” – and the same goes for body language. Our body language often reveals more about our thoughts and feelings than what we articulate verbally. We use many forms of non-verbal communication – such as gestures, mannerisms, handshakes – but these can vary greatly from country to country. It’s very important to understand these signals can mean something completely different in another culture.
Eye Contact – In many countries avoidance of eye contact is translated as shiftiness or insecurity, but in some cultures (e.g. Asian) avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect.
Smiling – In New Zealand we would generally consider smiling to be a sign of happiness whereas in other countries, someone may smile to cover sadness, anger, or worry. It can also be used to save face. In some cultures, people smile only within the family unit. Students from European countries rarely smile until they start to relax and get to know you, so understanding that this is normal behaviour is very important for homestay hosts.
Pointing and Beckoning – Pointing or gesturing for someone to “come here’ can be insulting, particularly in Eastern cultures. Instead, hold your hand out in front with the palm facing downward, then move your fingers back and forth if you need to signal for someone to come closer.
Physical Contact – In many Asian cultures, the head is the most sacred part of the body and should not be touched. Touching a student on the head is not seen as appropriate. Greeting with a kiss or hug may be usual in your home, but is not acceptable to many other cultures. Some students will be willing to shake hands, many will be happier with a nod.
Names – Great significance is often attached to a person’s name. Make sure you find out how to pronounce and spell your students’ names and teach them how to do the same for everyone in your household. It is not appropriate to call your student by a nickname that you come up with on your own, or by a shortened version of their name. In some cultures, the family name is written first, followed by the given name. Some students will have four or five names, which are given them at birth out of respect for relatives. Find out the right name to use for your student when they first arrive.
Yes and No – Answering ‘yes’ often means that the student has heard you and is acknowledging you; it does not always mean that they have understood and are going to do what you say. It helps to ask open ended questions rather than questions that require a yes or no answer to ensure your student has understood what you are saying.
Expressing Emotion, Disharmony or Loudness – In some cultures, people readily display emotion whether it is anger, frustration, or happiness but in other parts of the world any open display of emotion is considered a lack of self-discipline and viewed as being in poor taste. Disagreement is not normally expressed. In general, international students will do all they can to maintain smooth relationships. This is because they fear any open display of disharmony.
Humour – Your guests may find it confusing and hurtful, even insulting, to hear people “mocking” or “knocking” someone. Many students will not find this funny and won’t understand its purpose. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humour. When coping with a new language, jokes are very hard to understand and often a student will not see the funny side. There may be a delay when translating the joke and the moment may well have passed.
Polite Behaviour – Each culture has its outward signs of politeness. Asian students will generally show great respect to anyone older than themselves and often have difficulty understanding the way some children speak to their parents, especially to their brothers and sisters.