Body Language: The international student guide
Make a great first impression, wherever you are in the world! Source: Trung Thanh/Unsplash

Culture and traditions vary all over the world, and that’s a huge part of what makes life so exciting. Body language is another factor that can differ, and for international students, these nuances are worth bearing in mind. A courteous nod in one country could signal disrespect in another…

From hand gestures to personal space and even bodily posture, there are plenty of ways we communicate without using words. When studying overseas, it’s important that you make a positive first impression, and so much of that rests on your ability to read non-verbal cues.

The lovely folk at TakeLessons have put together this fabulous infographic – a tool that can help you master body language from around the world. Hover over the icons for global examples and read more handy tips below!

Source: How to Read Body Language [by TakeLessons]


We’ve all experienced someone, friend or otherwise, standing a little too close for comfort. It can be distressing when these invisible boundaries are broken, so it’s crucial that you gauge the ideal standing distance when trying to make friends in your new home.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology found that British people tend to stand a metre away from a stranger, 80cm from an acquaintance and just over 50cm from an intimate or close friend.

This differs from a lot of Latin American cultures, which tend to be pretty close-knit and affectionate. Argentinians, for example, tend to keep 76cm from a stranger, 59cm from an acquaintance and 40cm from a friend.  So remember – when conversing with a Latin American, they may well stand quite close, but this is totally normal to them!

If you’re studying somewhere like Japan, people generally leave space between each other when engaging in conversation. This middle ground leaves enough room for people to bow – a gesture that serves many functions in contemporary Japanese society.

From hello to goodbye, thank you to I’m sorry – the bow has many functions. Source: Giphy

Arm and Feet Positioning

Think about the placing of your arms and feet. Crossing your arms tightly across your chest can make you seem disconnected, uncomfortable and even a bit standoffish.

Think about your posture when you sit down, too. In countries like Thailand, for example, and various regions of the Middle East, showing the soles of your feet is both insulting and rude. Wherever it is you’re going, it’s important that you research specific country customs. It shows you respect their culture and, above all, means you can avoid upsetting the locals!

Facial Expression

The eyes are often described as windows to the soul, and that’s really because they give so much away. Where words fail, our eyes say it all, and you can bet that your new friends are examining your facial expression to see how invested you truly are.

Looking away or bending to distraction indicates to the other person that you’re not fully engaged. Eye contact, on the other hand, is perceived as a sign of genuine interest, while the occasional nod or sound of agreement affirms that the speaker’s being heard.

And remember – the smile is a party and the whole face is invited! A forced grin that spreads no further than the mouth can seem false, and that’s no way to make friends!

You’re never fully dressed without a smile! Source: Giphy

Hand Gestures

Take a look at the hands of whoever you’re speaking with. Are they used a lot for added emphasis or expression? Consider the context in which they use certain signs or gestures – are they positive or negative?

Hand gestures are a really good way of reinforcing what you’re saying, but again, they mean completely different things in different countries…

Take the humble thumbs up as an example: in the US, UK and across most of Europe, it’s used as a sign of approval or agreement, while in places like Bangladesh, Australia, Greece and a lot of the Middle East, it’s a symbol that’s most definitely perceived as an insult.

Be careful with those thumbs and fingers, people – you don’t want to cause offense!


A general rule of thumb (pun intended!) is that culturally-appropriate body language will be mirrored. Take a look at the people around you, soak up how they move and interact.

Shadowing the movements and gestures of others is a pretty safe bet. It gives you time to adapt and adopt the appropriate body language. Soon enough, you’ll be fluent in your host country’s cultural norms and you’ll blend right in!

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