It's easy to misunderstand someone from a culture different than your own--especially when it comes to non-verbals.
Despite this, there's not much intentional training on nonverbal behavior in global corporations. Perhaps there should be. I recall my initiation into this special "world" as a new management trainer in Saudi Arabia in 1979. Since then, the whole idea of cross-cultural teams and travel has become the norm. I'm not so sure that the same is true with purposeful understanding. Here's my Day One experience; perhaps you've had a similar one:
Our support staff was made up entirely of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Thai folks. When addressing the group about an administrative problem, the silent responses ranged from a head shake (Indian) to downward stares (Pakistani and Bangladeshi) to a bright smile from our Thai guy. I took this to mean lack of concern or a misunderstanding--perhaps I wasn't speaking clearly. I finally left the discussion puzzled by what appeared to be a collective lack of concern.
By the end of the day the situation was, without fanfare, totally resolved. Huh?
It was only later that another native English-speaking manager with considerably more experience sat me down and gave me a million-dollar lesson in cultural non-verbals. He shared that the Thai smile signaled an apology; the Indian head-shake wasn't a "No" (a U.S non-verbal) but in fact a "Yes, I understand." The other two fellows were from cultures that didn't value constant eye contact while being engaged--but they were listening carefully and clearly engaged.
Teaching and Learning, Explicit or Implicit?
So: is non-verbal behavior something that can accurately be picked up by informal exposure to other people or does it need to be specifically taught?
A study by Damnet & Borland (2007) (don't seem to be able to access this any longer) suggests it may be better to teach nonverbal behavior explicitly.
This study examined Thai university students learning English as a foreign language.
One group saw videos of native English speakers along with being taught the meaning of the words. While they were not explicitly taught the nonverbal communication, they were implicitly exposed to it.
A second group was purposefully taught about nonverbal communication in addition to learning the grammar and vocabulary. It was this second group that showed the best understanding of nonverbal communication.
In Organizations, It Matters
It can be tough enough during meetings and normal interactions to interpret the nonverbal cues from our own culture . Add the global nature of doing business and one would have to ask: Wouldn't it make sense to simply put this out there as a training program? It could be a lot of fun as well as highly educational in a way that would reduce unnecessary misunderstandings.
Add your own examples to the comments. It would be a big help to readers everywhere.