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Cultural Body Language

Cultural Body Language

What are some examples of gestures with specific cultural meanings?



Full Transcript

They’re not universal but in many cultures, for example, the pointing with lips, you know, which for years I never noticed. I had aboriginal students for years and I didn’t notice it until I started to work in Asia and then I thought my gosh, I’ve missed that, you know? And you also have to understand the gestures that are rude. Like we in western cultures, we beckon. That is extremely rude in non-western cultures. They mostly do it in a less treatening way, if at all. We can inadvertently as western mediators use a gesture, or a word even, that is deeply offensive and we won’t know that we’ve done it. Unless we really immerse ourselves into the culture and become culturally fluent.


So, if I’m working in a new culture, I actually openly say in the beginning, look I don’t know, I need to be educated by you. ‘You know, I’m a westerner, I’m coming in with my western norms and ideas. I want to learn about your culture.’ So I take that not knowing stance, that bottom up stance, and ask them all the way through the training, or all the way through the mediation to educate me and in the process of educating me, particularly if it’s a cross-cultural dispute, they’re educating each other about the correct ways of doing things, or the incorrect way of doing things, or the meanings of words, or the meanings of gestures, or whatever.


I just find it fascinating. You have to take a ‘not knowing’ stance. I don’t know so you need to be willing to hear things which are very different to what you expect, and to try to understand the meaning of them. Clear your thoughts of your western ideas, of your gendered ideas or your age-related ideas or whatever. I call it, Lebarren [sounds like 26:47] calls it cultural fluency. I call it cultural reflexivity, in that you’re constantly having to remind yourself of how your gender, your culture, your class, your education has influenced your way of viewing the world. Which influences the way you hear things, influences the way you understand things and influences the questions you ask, and the way you respond.


So, it’s a constant process of clearing your mind, being open to learning from the people in front of you and to hearing things that are new and exploring the meanings of things, which maybe you don’t understand. In a way, that empowers the people in front of you and helps them to educate each other.

About the mediator

Dale Bagshaw Profile Pic

After 36 years as an academic, Dale is now an adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia (UniSA) where she was previously a Head of School, the Director of Postgraduate Studies, the Program Director for the Masters/Graduate Diploma in Mediation and Conflict Resolution (since 1993) and the Doctor of Human Service Research. From 1993 to 2009 she was also the Director of the ... View Mediator