Interviewing in different cultures

Here is some information about jobs in Belgium, interviewing skills and learning how non-verbal communication styles across cultures can have an impact on your job interview. We often judge people’s personalities through our observations of their Nonverbal communication skills. Humans are “pack animals”, dependent on others, striving for harmony. We often rely on non-verbal communication signals to guess at how other people feel. We do this by noticing their body language, tone of voice, posture, gestures or eye contact.

In different cultures, a specific non-verbal communication signal may mean different things. Thus, it is very useful for us to understand people from different cultures by understanding their basic nonverbal communicative skills in the context in which they live and operate.

For example, in America, having good eye contact in a conversation shows you that the person is listening, is being honest and sincere (Nishiyama, 2000). If you avoid a person’s eye contact in the U.S., one might assume that you were simply not interested, were dishonest or were trying to be sly (Nishiyama, 2000). 1

In Japan, however, the opposite is true. If you establish too much eye contact with a person, you are often considered as being rude, aggressive or intrusive. One might think that you are insisting on being ‘equal’ (Nishiyama, 2000). In Japan it would be perfectly normal for a person that you speak with to shift their eyes away from you during the conversation. (Nishiyama, 2000).

Asians are taught not to show their teeth because it is rude. Occidental cultures show their teeth, keeping their hands away from their faces. Europeans who have their hand in front of their mouth when they speak are considered ‘shy or uncomfortable or impolite’. Asians belch and slurp up their spaghetti and their soup making noise, while Europeans do everything possible to suppress public burps and slurps.

Probably the biggest nonverbal difference between Japan and U.S. can be found in their body language, gestures and postures (Axtell, 1993). In America, people (particularly business people) greet each other with handshakes and sometimes hugs. Europeans greet with “Air kisses” or 1,2, or 3 (depending on the subculture) kisses on the cheek.

Japanese people greet by bowing. There is an entire etiquette for bowing in Japan (Axtell, 1993). Bowing in Japan during an introduction shows status (Axtell, 1993). For example, business inferiors must bow lower than superiors no matter how low they have to bow (Axtell, 1993).

Another major difference between Japan and U.S. is how they walk and sit. For example, in Japan, people are expected to sit up straight with both feet on the floor. Legs may be crossed at the knee or ankle only (CultureGrams, 2004). Walking styles are also very different between Japanese and Americans. (Nishiyama, 2000). Japanese walk in short quick strides and often have drooping shoulders. This low posture is called teishisei (Nishiyama, 2000). The assumption for an American is that the Japanese are less assured of themselves and more discreet or weak, however in reality, this is a sign of humility and respect (Nishiyama, 2000).

In contrast, Americans view walking tall with longer strides and a more upright posture as evidence of confidence and strength (Nishiyama, 2000). This is a serious ‘belief’ in our society but probably not at all the truth about the individual, just a false judgment.

There are some non-verbal communication signals that most nationalities, regardless of their creed or race, have in common. For example, showing a frown in our facial expression, means, ‘not happy, or in disagreement’ with what the person is telling you.

I have discovered from my 10 years of interviewing both American and European people, that there are also some major differences in their non-verbal communication styles, which has a bearing on my ability to judge them in a job interview.

In job interviews, Europeans are usually more serious, individualist, opinionated, and less comfortable in their skin, less forthcoming with information, less verbose. They calculate their responses, look at the interviewer’s eye but then look away off and on. Their voices vary in speed and tonality. It is easy to read the non-verbal signs in their voice and body language because they are all very different from each other. It seems to me that Europeans 1) have not been educated about “appropriate” non-verbal communication, 2) live with more taboos in their society and 3) have a religious culture which has guilt built into it.

On the contrary, I find most Americans to be more predictable. They appear to be outgoing, forthcoming with information, shake hand firmly and look directly into the interviewer’s eye in a constant manner, seldom looking away. They are more verbose and confident, showing an assured posture. They act as though they were familiar with the interviewer. This may be because 1) there is a lot of training about this in the education system and in corporations 2) Americans have a more open society with less taboos. The era of the 60’s and 70’s resulted in more open marriages, gay/lesbian acceptance, women’s rights, and acceptance of divorce. Work experience in place of upper diploma is more widely accepted than in Europe. 3) Religion may play less of a role in the individual’s upbringing (since people escaping the structures of religion founded America)

With this being said, I find it harder to judge Americans on their non-verbal communication skills because they have all been coached on handshakes, good eye contact, and to have a positive smiley attitude. They are taught to have a strong voice when interviewing.

It is much easier to deduce information about a European’s personality from their non-verbal communication skills because they are so individualistic. It is much more difficult for me to make a judgment about an American’s personality based upon their non-verbal skills, because they all behave in a similar fashion.

I can usually tell quickly whether an American would be a good commercial person, an analytical/finance type – a leader or a follower. It is more difficult for me to do with Europeans.

I have had to adapt my approach with Europeans, making the questions much deeper and asking questions that ask the individual to imagine being in the actual situation that they would be operating in their prospective job. In order to make a realistic sound judgment call of an individual’s non-verbal communication style, it is critical to consider their nationality, culture, where they grew up, what their environment and culture is based upon.

We can also deduce from this discussion, that if a person’s non-verbal communication skills are grossly different than those persons from their own culture, there is a strong possibility that have been coached or at least that their awareness has been raised.

1: NLP and eye movement

There is one caveat about judging a person’s eye contact. NLP points out that people move their eyes when they are accessing information. If you ask someone a question and then notice that they are not looking at you, it may be that they have moved their eyes in order to 1) interpret the question or 2) formulate an answer.

NLP’s assumption is that people eye movement patterns are cross-cultural, that they are part of human neurology.

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