Marketing Matters Featured

10:00am EDT July 22, 2002
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We talk a lot about oral and written communications, identifying and retaining customers and planning and implementing advertising, direct-marketing and public relations programs.

Yet unspoken and unwritten communications-often just as important as oral and written-don't garner much attention. I'm talking about gestures and how they affect the messages you send, especially when your company has overseas locations, co-workers born in other lands or customers across the globe.

Ever told co-workers what a great job they're doing on a project and given them the thumbs-up gesture? If you used this gesture in Nigeria, Australia and other spots, you'll most likely end up being told where to place that thumb of yours-or worse. In Australia, ""thumbs up"" means ""up yours.""

If you are a University of Texas Longhorn football fan, you may be feeling especially proud of this year's Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. If you want to use the ""hook 'em horns"" (vertical horns) gesture, be careful. In Italy, this type of gesture means you're telling someone that his or her spouse is being unfaithful.

So what does this have to do with the marketing efforts of businesses? Other than saving embarrassment the next time you talk about the University of Texas at your favorite Italian restaurant, the point is that nonverbal communication is extremely important if you want to be understood and get your point across.

Experts claim that 60 percent of all our communication is nonverbal. I believe it. When someone presents information to you, or tells you a story or joke, what makes it memorable? It's mostly in the delivery. It's in facial expressions such as a raised eyebrow, a smirk, animated waving of the arms and hands. If you simply said what you had to say in a monotone, let's just say you probably won't be asked to entertain clients at your next business function or dinner party.

Since we live in a global economy, it may be valuable to think about how our gestures can be taken out of context outside of our borders. Roger Axtell, author of ""Gestures, the Do's and Taboos of Body Language around the World,"" lists the top 10 gestures and examples of body language most commonly used by North Americans:

Shaking hands We are taught to shake hands with a firm, solid grip. But when Middle Easterners and Orientals shake hands, they favor a gentle grip because, in their cultures, a firm grip suggests aggressiveness.

Eye contact We are taught to look others directly in the eyes. To do otherwise is often regarded as a sign of shyness, lack of warmth or weakness. But in Japan, Korea and other countries, direct eye contact is avoided since it's considered intimidating or may indicate sexual overtones. There goes the old ""use a firm handshake and look 'em straight in the eyes"" advice from your father.

Waving To us, this can signal hello or goodbye, or that we're trying to get someone's attention. Throughout most of Europe, this signals ""No!"" It could easily mean waving goodbye to a hot prospect.

Beckoning Beckoning by raising the index finger (palm toward one's face) and making a curling motion with that finger could land you in trouble Down Under. In Australia and Indonesia, this gesture is used only for beckoning animals and would be insulting to humans. Unless you are in the animal training business, this can't be good for client relations.

""V"" is for victory Displaying the index and middle fingers in the shape of a ""V"" usually means victory or peace. But in England, when this is done with the palm facing inward toward the face, it's the same as signaling ""up yours.""

The OK gesture Forming a circle with the thumb and forefinger with the other three fingers splayed upward means ""O.K."" in our culture. However, in France, it means zero or worthless. In places including Brazil, Russia and Germany, it's the signal for a very private bodily orifice. Either way, it sure doesn't mean A-OK.

Space relationships North Americans generally consider standing about 30 inches apart, about an arm's length, to be comfortable. But in Oriental cultures, people usually stand farther apart. In contrast, Latin Americans and Middle Easterners stand much closer.

Touching In general, North Americans are not touch oriented. Good friends may occasionally touch a forearm or elbow. With very good friends, they may place an arm around a shoulder. But hugging is almost never done among casual acquaintances. Latin cultures enjoy hearty embraces and warm pats on the back. In the Middle East, two Arab male friends may be seen walking in the street hand-in-hand and all it signifies is friendship.

So next time you're traveling in Australia on business, refrain from beckoning an associate with your curled index finger just to give him a hearty ""thumbs up."" It just may take your business down under.

Jeff Krakoff is president of Krakoff Communications Inc. Comments and questions can be sent via e-mail to