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Off topic: Body Language Around the World
Thread poster: PB Trans
PB Trans

Local time: 17:37
French to English
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Mar 12, 2004

Are You Rude? Four Accidental Goofs

by Martha Brockenbrough

It's one thing to be rude on purpose. While it's never an admirable activity, some people truly have elevated rudeness to an art form and have been rewarded with riches and their own television shows. (I don't think it would be rude to point a finger here at Joan Rivers and Simon Cowell.)

Where rudeness is particularly sad and never rewarded financially is where it's unintended.

Take the Ugly American syndrome, which happens when Americans go overseas and are loud, badly dressed, and disrespectful of local customs. These people don't mean to offend when they strut into ancient temples wearing dimple-revealing short-shorts, but offend they do.

Likewise, I have to think that Carson Daly doesn't mean to say, "Your wife has cheated on you and given you the horns of a cuckold," to all those MTV viewers who watch him faithfully when he makes "horn hands." MTV has such a large audience, and so many wives to corrupt, that I have to give him the benefit of the doubt here, despite his reputation as a ladies' man.

More likely, he's using the "hang loose" meaning, or possibly even the American Sign Language gesture that means, "I love you" (and have no intention of trying to seduce your wife).

Nonetheless, in many parts of the world and depending on how the horn fingers are pointing, the gesture is quite an insult, ranging from the wife slur to a more generic curse upon you.

Similarly, George Bush, Sr., did not mean to say, "Up yours!" to Australians when he visited there in the early '90s, but when he flashed the victory sign, he pointed his palm in the wrong direction and accidentally made the news that way. It's an honest mistake among conservatives, apparently. Margaret Thatcher did it too and the Associated Press caught it on film.

Even the "thumbs up" gesture Bill Clinton often employed during his presidential speeches is offensive to some. In Greece and Sardinia, it means something that can only be politely said to one of the local olives: Get stuffed.

One could make the argument that if a "thumbs up" is offensive to some people, then it's impossible to be universally polite without tying your hands behind your back.

Maybe so. You could fill a dictionary with the vocabulary of gestures that can easily be made with the hands and face, a staggering amount of which are insulting or obscene. (In fact, there is a dictionary like this--The Dictionary of Worldwide Gestures, by Betty J. Bauml and Franz H. Bauml.)

But just knowing what's rude and why is a big step in avoiding the embarrassment of accidentally insulting people, which is why I've selected the Top 4 Potentially Rude Things You Can Do Without Even Opening Your Mouth.

Part 2: Be very careful with the sign of the V
If you make a V with your middle and index fingers, in most parts of the world people understand the fact that you're making a peace or victory sign. But you have to be careful which way your palm faces when you're in England and Australia. There, if you make a V and face the back of your hand outward, it's shorthand for "up yours."
Everything's OK--or maybe not
As if things with France weren't strained enough, with our renaming of French fries and their rejection of the term e-mail in favor of something entirely French, now we have to deal with the knowledge that the familiar handsign for "OK," one recognized as, well okay, by 98 percent of Americans, means "worthless" in France.
If your waiter asks you if your escargot was good, you're better off getting mocked for your bad French accent than if you try to signal your appreciation with the good ol' OK sign.

In other countries, like Brazil, it's even worse, as the OK sign symbolizes a very private orifice. Less frequently, the OK symbol combined with a chopping motion of the hand takes on the meaning, "you are so worthless, I will kill you tomorrow (because you're too worthless for me to bother killing today)."

While this certainly is an elegant insult, it sounds impossible to believe. But it's all spelled out in Gestures, by Desmond Morris, Peter Collett, Peter Marsh and Marie O'Shaughnessy. Gestures is a fascinating book that summarizes three years of research in Europe about what certain gestures there are thought to mean.

The rule of thumb (and index finger) on this one: Don't make the sign outside of the United States.

Thumbs up
Hollywood would have us believe that this gesture originated with the Roman gladiators, and that a thumbs up or thumbs down would determine whether the gladiator lived or died. But this is not correct; there is even evidence to indicate that originally, thumbs down might have been the positive sign.

Whatever its origins, this is an ancient gesture, dating far back before the heyday of Siskel and Ebert.

In the United States, it can mean "everything is all right," or, "I need a ride."

But this meaning is by no means universal.

In Nigeria, tourists have been beaten up for trying to hitchhike with the aid of their thumbs. In Australia, it once again means "up yours," something that makes me wonder if the Australians have as many ways of saying "up yours" as Native Alaskans do for snow.

The thumb can also be used as a counting figure, but differently in different parts of the world. In Japan, for example, it means "five," while in Germany, it means "two." While this doesn't seem like a big deal, it could certainly lead to confusion in a crowded Schnitzelbank or sushi bar when you find yourself with more beverages than you can drink.

Part 3: Showing the Bottom of Shoes
At the risk of making an inexcusable pun, I will say that the agony of the feet can be a real thing.

In his entertaining book Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, Roger Axtell describes a botched 1995 meeting between Saddam Hussein and Bill Richardson, who was then a U.S. Congressman from New Mexico. Richardson was trying to bring about the release of a pair of American hostages, but almost ended the meeting at its start because he crossed his legs and flashed a little sole.

In some Arab cultures, as in other cultures, to show a person the bottom of your shoe is a major insult. It's worse than metaphorically putting your foot in your mouth; it's like displaying your lowest, filthiest body part. An equivalent gesture in the United States might be to flash your bare bottom. How would you feel if someone did that to you while conducting business?

Given the way some people feel about the foot bottoms, it's also a bad idea to put one's shoes on a desk or other piece of furniture, especially in places like Japan, Thailand, and France, where these moves are considered taboo.
The bottom line
Naturally, there are many more than four ways to be accidentally rude. Probably the least of which is in not knowing that the French commonly eat their freedom fries with a knife and fork, as perhaps you should, when you're visiting them.

As trivial as some of these things sound, they're not. Bill Richardson's near-failed attempt to get American hostages out of Iraq after the first Gulf War seems like a dramatic example until you consider how much of our human language isn't spoken or written--it's shown.

Emotion experts like Daniel Goleman say that 90 percent of emotional communication is done without words. Surely much of the gap is made up by gestures, and even the unintentional ones can provoke real emotions in the people who are reading our unspoken languages.

As the world becomes an increasingly connected place, the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication rises. Sometimes the results are funny, but sometimes they're tragic.

Either way, it pays to understand what we're really saying when we speak without talking, and definitely increases the chances that the people you meet around the world will give you the thumbs up--and they'll mean it as a compliment.

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Andy Watkinson
Local time: 18:37
Catalan to English
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Not Maggie Mar 26, 2004

"It's an honest mistake among conservatives, apparently. Margaret Thatcher did it too and the Associated Press caught it on film."

I simply can't imagine anyone English accidentally making this mistake.

If Thatcher stuck two fingers up to someone you can be pretty sure she meant it.


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two2tango  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:37
English to Spanish
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Enlightening and funny Mar 26, 2004

Thanks Pina, great reading!

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Berni Armstrong  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:37
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Adopting gestures Mar 27, 2004

Have any of you living abroad noticed how you pick up gestures that when you return to your homeland are meaningless?

I noticed friends of mine in Britain bewildered when I used the Spanish "it was crowded" gesture (upturned hand, fingers meet and part from thumb repeatedly). Or else the "Vaya Vaya" shake of the wrist with the fingers folded at half mast when saying "Bloody hell!".

It was only when my friends expressed such puzzlement that I realized I had absorbed more than just vocabulary over the years I have lived in Catalunya.

[Edited at 2004-03-27 11:58]

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PB Trans

Local time: 17:37
French to English
+ ...
Here's another interesting article Mar 27, 2004

Since I travel so much globally, I think it's safest if I just tie my hands behind my back!

Here's is an interesting link regarding "yes and no gestures" around the world.

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Özden Arıkan  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:37
English to Turkish
Gestures vs. globalization Mar 27, 2004

Berni, it's so interesting to read about the "it's crowded" and "Vaya Vaya" gestures of the Catalan. These are made exactly the same way with exactly the same meanings in Turkey. No wonder I had felt so at home when I was in Catalunya

Still, body language seems to differ much more accross cultures than it tends to be similar. The "thumbs up" gesture of the Americans, for instance, means "up yours" in Iran; another unfortunate language barrier is that a gesture Americans make to wish luck, sticking the thumb from between the index and middle fingers of a fisted hand, again means "screw you" in Turkey. But my favorite is from Bulgaria: in one of the links below we read that in Bulgaria you should nod to say "no", and shake your head to say "yes". It seems, with the one-sided cultural feed mainly through the TV most people, in Turkey for instance, would understand the American "up yours", the middle finger, while vice versa is not the case. I wonder if this process known as globalization these days is beginning to create a body language barrier between the various generations of the same culture as well.

Here are two great sites dedicated to body language and gestures:

[Edited at 2004-03-27 14:00]

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Lorenzo Lilli  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:37
German to Italian
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gestures in Dante's Inferno Mar 28, 2004

Xola wrote:

another unfortunate language barrier is that a gesture Americans make to wish luck, sticking the thumb from between the index and middle fingers of a fisted hand, again means "screw you" in Turkey.

[Edited at 2004-03-27 14:00]

This gesture was mentioned in Dante's Inferno, too: (see the first lines) (in Italian: If I'm not wrong, it means "good luck" in Brasil, as well as in the US.

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Colin Brayton  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:37
Arabic to English
+ ...
OK for the U.S., not OK for Brazilians Mar 29, 2004

The "OK" gesture is famously not okay for use in Brazil, where it is a crude invitation to place things where the sun never shines: Brazilians use a charmingly emphatic thumb's up to indicate agreement, cooperation, or a positive appraisal of something.

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