Americans love to smile. Often, when interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds or when traveling overseas Americans will fall back on smiling as the first and best way to connect with people.
In some cultures, however, smiling will not come across in the positive way that Americans intend. In Korean culture, people who smile frequently are seen as shallow and thoughtless. Often when they do smile it indicates that they are embarrassed. There is a Korean proverb that says, “the man who smiles a lot is not a real man.”
So what happens when Americans and Koreans interact without understanding this cultural difference? Americans will come across as shallow and thoughtless rather than friendly and Koreans will appear to Americans to be expressionless or unhappy or their embarrassed smiles will lead Americans to believe all is well when it is not.
Our physical expressions are a part of our culture that we begin learning from birth. When we are in a context where everyone else uses the same physical expressions and movements as we do, we feel comfortable because we know how to interact and how to interpret what we see and we do so unconsciously. When we are in a context where people have different physical expressions we can become angry and frustrated because our normal cues are gone. We don’t know how to communicate and we don’t know how to interpret what we are seeing. It takes extra effort and time to learn how to understand the non-verbal expressions of people from a different culture and for them to learn to understand ours.
If you are going to travel to a different country take some time to learn about non-verbal communication and physical expressions in the culture before you go. If you regularly interact with people from different cultures here in the States make the effort to learn about the way people from their culture express themselves physically. Ask them what differences they see in American physical expressions.
Making the effort to learn and to ask questions can ease the confusion and discomfort you will experience in interacting with people from different cultures. It can help you to both communicate more clearly with them and to more accurately interpret their behavior.