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Which dialect of body language do you speak?

Greet someone like a stranger. Then greet him/her like a close friend who just got married. Then greet that person as if he/she just gifted you $1 million.

Notice how your body language changes in each setting? These were the exercises that Ms. Linda Clemons had a group of 600 attorneys conduct recently to demonstrate how body language communicates a lot. Communication is 7 percent words, 38 percent tone and 55 percent body language, according to Ms. Clemons, an expert in body language. Unless all three are conveying the same message, the result may be mixed messages.

Body language is often subconscious and leaks out true feelings. For people who need to convey clear messages, this is a concern because body language carries more weight than words. Many in the audience were concerned whether their non-verbal communication was sabotaging negotiations. Ms. Clemons advised that, for clear communication, the audience should be aware of body language and to be conscious that it conveys the message sought to be communicated by words.

She offered tips on how to translate body language, for example: Someone who leans in toward a speaker is interested in the message, someone whose arms are crossed is defensive or closed and someone whose lips are pursed is holding in feelings.

While most people can relate to these tips, body language isn’t a universal language. I feel there are a variety of dialects. For example, Asian Indians don’t shake their head up and down to express consent; they do a side-to-side head bobble. In China, people stand much closer to strangers than in the U.S., and by standing close, it doesn’t mean the Chinese are “interested” in the other party. In Nigeria, extended eye contact could convey a challenge, whereas in the U.S. it may indicate interest.

So when you conduct business abroad, how do you make sure your body language doesn’t get lost in translation? Conventional advice is to follow the lead of others, but is this always a good tip? Would love to hear your stories!