Although speaking the language of the country that you’re traveling to will usually make the trip easier and more enjoyable, it is also important to understand the nonverbal communication signs used in that culture. Failure to understand that your facial expressions, gestures, and body position may be offensive to someone from the country that you are visiting invites unnecessary problems.
Darwin’s research on facial expressions has led to a widely held belief that the primary emotions conveyed by the face are universal, and thus not specific to any one culture. These facial expression are of happiness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, and sadness, so no matter where in the world you exhibit these expressions they will be recognized, even by those who have had no prior contact with western civilization. However, the acceptability of making certain facial expressions can vary widely between cultures. For example, while American women are encouraged to smile large smiles, it is considered inappropriate for Japanese women to do so.
Eye contact is an important part of many western, European, and Arabic cultures, but in many parts of the world, direct eye contact is considered disrespectful, especially to superiors. So when traveling in countries such as Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Japan, or in Native American reservations, keep in mind that the eye contact that you are intending to be sincere and friendly may be taken in a way that it was not intended to be.
Public touching is also sometimes an uncomfortable culture shock when traveling from a low contact culture (North American countries, northern European countries, Asian countries, Pakistan, and Native American Peoples) to a high contact culture (Middle East, South American countries, southern European countries) or vice versa. In high contact cultures, it is considered friendly to stand very close to each other and touch frequently, whereas this would be considered rude or improper in a low contact country. Typically, high contact cultures are also more permissive about same-gender touching among friends.
Head and hand gestures are common in almost all cultures, but sometimes the same gesture can have radically different meanings in different cultures. The “OK sign”, made by making a circle with your thumb and index finger with your three other fingers extended upward, means OK in the United States. However, in Japan, this hand gesture means “money”, in France it means “zero”, in Mexico it means “sex”, and in some South American countries like Brazil, it is an obscene gesture. The “thumbs up” gesture is similarly confusing. In some countries it has a similar meaning to that of the US, but in Iran and Sardinia, it is an obscene gesture. Nodding ones head up and down means yes in many cultures, but in other parts of the world it can mean anything from “no” to “I don’t know” to “I disagree”.
So save yourself some trouble, and look up an etiquette guide online for whichever country you’re going to travel to. You’ll be glad you did when you’re not getting yelled at in a foreign language for accidentally insulting someone.