Going to a foreign country? You can study up on Berlitz tapes or Rosetta Stone all you want, but in any culture, the verbal particulars tell only part of the story. Subtleties of tone and posture make up a large part of communication, even between fellow countrymen.
The language barrier just puts even more pressure on nonverbal expression. So before you flip the Burmese version of the bird, or try to give a German prime minister a friendly shoulder rub, you should try to have a clear idea of the rubric of understanding through which your gestures will be interpreted, the standards of behavior to follow. Here are some of the most costly slip-ups you’ll want to avoid, most of which would be totally unremarkable back home:
This is probably the single most likely body language mistake to get travelers in trouble, because it’s very widely considered rude in many different countries … while in those cultures that lack such a taboo, it hardly occurs to us that anyone would find such a clear and expedient gesture vulgar. After all, we call it an “index” finger precisely because it’s used to, well, indicate things.
The best alternative is probably to gesture with an open-palmed hand, which makes sense, as it has the connotation of being inviting, rather than potentially accusatory. This latter issue may also be why some cultures do make a distinction between pointing qua pointing and pointing at somebody. It may help to think of your finger as a make-believe pistol: never point it at another human being, even if it’s not loaded.
Those of us who are southpaws may find this offensive, but in many lands there remains a strong prejudice in favor of the right hand and against the left. Most famously, in India and throughout the Muslim world, the left hand has always been designated for, ahem, certain necessary-but-unpleasant tasks. This is not some xenophobic urban legend, but a simple historical reality: mankind had to develop a lot of other ways to clean up before Cottonelle® came along. Indeed, many people still see our beloved modern convenience as less “clean” and prefer the old-fashioned method.
Even in countries where Western toilet habits are firmly (but softly?) established, a certain spiritual unease about the left hand is common. The transgressive form of Tantra, for instance, the (rough) Buddhist equivalent of black magic, is called vamachara, “left-handed attainment.” We in the West have our own history of superstitions about handedness; it seems practically universal. Probably it’s that most people are genetically inclined to be right-handed, and we view the unusual as suspicious. If you do use your left hand to gesture, eat, or pass an item to someone, they probably won’t suspect you of sinister intentions or leftist agitation, but they may very well find your behavior gauche.
You know that gesture you make where you join your index finger and thumb, to signal OK? Well, in some places, it’s very much not OK, OK? It means “money” in Japan, signals the “evil eye” in the Middle East, is an aggressive gesture in Brazil, and in Greece or Turkey it’s even more offensive (denoting a certain body part that’s already entered the discussion here, and which people don’t typically like to be called). Unfortunately, the closest American equivalent, a thumbs-up, is also used in certain parts of Asia and the Middle East as a shove-it gesture akin to flipping the bird.
That curling finger or fingers indicating that you want somebody to head over your way … you can perhaps see how this one could be taken as a bit too forward, even in our own permissive society. There’s something presumptuous, sensual, and potentially creepy about it. But in Asia it’s much worse: it’s considered an insult, a gesture appropriate only for beckoning animals. To Singaporeans it even symbolizes death. Yikes. Considering that Singapore is a common business destination with strict rules and some very colorful ideas about Hell, you might not want to come across as the Grim Reaper.
In parts of Europe, especially Italy, the gesture of flicking the top of one’s hand out from under one’s chin is a common gesture of defiance or disregard: not obscene, exactly, but very dismissive. On occasion, an innocent scratch of the chin can be mistaken for this contemptuous maneuver.
In many cultures, the feet are considered an unclean body part due to contact with the ground. (Thus the grave insult of shoe-throwing, once directed at George W. Bush, who, one must admit regardless of one’s political leaning, managed to dodge both shots with panache.) Avoid pointing your toes or soles at another. Never throw your feet up on a desk, unless you’re back in America, at your own desk, and you’re a cigar-smoking tycoon with a monocle.
Take the two-fingered victory sign made famous by Churchill (or the hippie peace sign). Now turn it around. What do you get? The number two? Not if you’re in Britain, which is among the countries where this is the equivalent of our middle-finger salute. So don’t try to order two baskets of fish and chips this way, unless you want a scalding cod across your face.
“If you smile at me, I will understand, cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.” That’s an uplifting thought (even in a song that seems to be about survivors of a nuclear holocaust), but is it true?
To respond with another, older song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Whether we like it or not, in this tower of Babel we call Earth, there’s such a huge diversity of cultures that even a smile doesn’t always mean the same thing. Grin at strangers in Prague or Seoul and they may peg you as a lunatic.
Meanwhile, in Bulgaria they shake their heads “yes” and nod “no.” To indicate “yes” in India, you shake your head left to right in a “bobble” motion.
So what’s a poor confused traveler to do? First and foremost, just do your homework. For each country you visit, at least skim a guidebook. Is that so much to ask? You don’t want to come across as the famous “ugly American.” When in doubt, reticence is best. Speak and move as unassumingly as possible, especially when it comes to hand gestures.
And do less talking and more listening (and observing). You can take your cues from how others carry themselves. Go by the ancient saying attributed to St. Ambrose: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Unless what the Romans do is flick their chins at you, in which case, it’s probably best not to reciprocate. Capisci?
[Guest article contributed by the Amanda Kostina of Onlinemba].