Wherever you are in the world, an astute understanding of your business partner's body language can make all the difference when trying to clinch a deal, says Richard D Lewis.
Body language, with its accompanying odours, is probably the principal mode of communication among animals. A peacock employs it more than a pelican, a Yorkshire terrier more than a horse, a chimpanzee more than a gorilla. Whether they all use it more than humans is a moot point. Man is the only animal that speaks, laughs and weeps. It is therefore tempting to subscribe to the theory that speech - first used minimally as an auxiliary to the basic messages of body language - developed into the main form of communication, gradually reducing body language among humans to an auxiliary role.
For all the incredible sophistication, subtlety and flexibility of speech, however, it seems that some humans still rely heavily on body language to convey what they really mean (especially where intense feelings are concerned). Such people are the Italians and South Americans, as well as many Africans and people from the Middle East. Other races, such as the Japanese, Chinese and Scandinavians, have virtually eliminated overt body language from their day-to-day communication.
An astute understanding of your business partner's body language will undoubtedly give you a head start in your dealings with him or her. Some forms of sales training involve a close study of body language, especially in those societies where it is demonstrative. Salesmen in some countries, for instance, are often told to pay great attention to the way their 'customers' sit during a meeting. If they lean forward on the edge of their chair, they're interested in the discussion or proposal. If they sit right back, they're bored, or confident to wait for things to turn their way. An open jacket or a legs-apart position indicates a willingness to talk. Buttoned jackets, and arms or legs tightly crossed betray defensiveness and withdrawal.
Salesmen should not try to close a sale in such a situation. Neither should they make a proposal to people who are tapping with their feet or fingers.
If customers, with knees lightly crossed, point their top leg towards a salesman, they're being relatively friendly. If the leg points away from him, however, the signs are less rosy.
The way we use our bodies to demonstrate our feelings is very important and so is the space around them. In fact, for more than half the world's inhabitants, the space bubble is sacred. The others don't know it exists. Space-invaders may be back-slapping Spaniards, arm-gripping Argentinians or, of course, bone-crushing American handshakes. People from Asian and northern cultures are generally uncomfortable when confronted by the more effusive gestures and behaviour of Latins and others.
The feeling of discomfort generally begins at the outset when the 'space bubble' is invaded. Orientals, Nordics, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic people mostly regard space within a just over a metre of the self as inviolable territory for strangers, but will allow a smaller personal bubble of half a metre in radius for close friends and relatives.
Mexicans, on the other hand, happily come within half a metre of strangers during business discussions. The repercussions of this can be more significant than just a few awkward moments. When Mexicans position themselves half a metre away from English people, they're ready to talk business. For the English, however, this amounts to an invasion of personal space and they back off to over a metre. In doing so, they relegate Mexicans to the South American 'public zone' and the latter thinks the English find their physical presence distasteful or that they don't want to talk business.
For a Mexican to talk business over such a yawning chasm is like an Englishman shouting out confidential figures to someone at the other end of the room.
The Japanese in particular experience discomfort when their personal space is 'invaded', while Anglo-Saxons, Nordics and Germans tolerate close presence with difficulty and East Asians in general (with the exception of the Indonesians) keep their distance from their interlocutor as a sign of respect. With Latins, Arabs and Africans, closeness is a sign of confidence and does not indicate a loss of respect.
It is difficult to change the habits of a lifetime, but it makes life much easier for us if we can educate ourselves in the habits of others.
Mutual understanding breeds mutual respect - the key to all good business dealings. And mutual respect for the body language habits of others can make the vital difference between striking a deal - or striking out.