Meaning of Gestures in Different Cultures ... Complimentary or Offensive?
In a foreign country, a man visited a local restaurant. He didn’t speak their language. He ordered something indecipherable off the menu. When the waiter brought him a plate of delicious looking fried noodles, he smiled and made an OK sign at the waiter with his thumb and forefinger linked in a circle. Looking angry, the waiter then picked up the dish and thrown it to his lap. What he did wrong, he wondered. Well, nothing is quite as it seems when it comes to using hand gesture in another country.
Gestures or emblems have been used to replace words in many countries, and they are often specific to a given culture. Gesture may mean something complimentary in one culture, but is highly offensive in another. Generally, there are no universal hand gestures. However, with the influence of television and movies, some gestures have become more widely known and accepted in many countries. In spite of that, if we want to succeed in international business and relationships, we should be aware of these differences, understand, respect and accept them. To many, these misunderstanding can still be a bigger deal than just momentarily annoyances.
What does this ‘Oh’ sign mean to you ?
If you are an English-speaking Caucasian and under the sea scuba diving around the world, it means ‘OK’, ‘good’, or ‘spot on’. In fact, it was believed that this ‘OK’ sign has been popularized by divers.
French understands it as ‘zero’ or ‘worthless’.
Japanese would read it as ‘money’.
Don’t show this to a Northern Greek. About 2000 years ago, ancient Greek vases have been found showing this gesture as a sexual insult. It is still thought the same way today. It implies that someone is a living manifestation of that unmentionable orifice, or refers to male and female’s genitalia, or as a signal that a man is homosexual. So, if you use this sign in northern Greece to tell a person that he is ‘ok’, he will feel insulted. He may retaliate. Alternatively, he may invite you home for an intimate dinner for two.
Other regions where this sign can be sexually insulting are parts of Central and Mediterranean Europe, Germany, Turkey, Malta, Sardinia, Tunisia, Greece, Russia, Middle-East, Paraguay, Brazil.
What does “thumb-up” or “thumbs-up” mean to different cultures?
The gesture “thumb-up” is also commonly misinterpreted. In English, it is popularly known as 'thumbs up', despite the fact that the action is commonly performed with only one hand. English-speaking Caucasians use it to signal ‘OK’, which is same meaning as O.K. ring gesture. The two can in fact be used almost interchangeably.
To most Europeans, it signals the number 1, since they count from 1 to 5 beginning with the thumb for 1 and ending with the little finger at number 5. Other nationalities, like Americans and Asians usually start counting on the index finger for number 1, and end on the thumb for number 5.
Avoid using this gesture in Southern Sardina or Northern Greece unless you want to invite a fight. There, it is an obscene insult signal meaning ‘get stuffed’ (or f*** you). While American, British and Australian would use the thumb up to signal hitch-hiking to the drivers, this message will not encourage a Greek driver or motorist to stop to give them a ride.
The Thumb up Meanings:
Based on 1,200 informants from 40 different locations from all over the world, the meanings of “thumb-up” were interpreted as follows:
Sexual Insult 36
Not used 318
Source : http://bernd.wechner.info/Hitchhiking/Thumb
Understanding the cultural upbringing of a person is vitally essential to avoid misinterpretation of gestures and misunderstanding of the other person’s feelings and intentions. Most Asians are not used to looking Australians, Americans or British in the eyes, as they view it as cultural sign of disrespect, so the Westerners misinterpret the Asians’ intention as devious, insincere or deceitful. Most Europeans like to stand physically close to the person whom they are having a conversation with, much closer than the Westerners. Consequently, Westerners think the Europeans are ‘pushy’ while Europeans think the Westerners are aloof or reserved.
There are no right or wrong signals, only cultural differences. Lack of cultural understanding will lead to disharmony among people from different cultures. When we know what to look for, such encounters with other cultures are actually very interesting, fascinating and fun. It is certainly a great topic to discuss over a cup of coffee and cakes.
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