Friday, January 22, 2010

What's in a gesture?

             Very few gestures are universally understood and interpreted. What is perfectly acceptable in the United States may be rude, or even obscene, in other cultures. It is important for teachers to understand how the gestures they use unconsciously may be misunderstood.
             Each of the following gestures can have a very different meaning in other cultures:

Beckon with index finger. This means "Come here" in the U.S. To motion with to someone to come with your index finger can be insulting in many cultures. Expect a reaction when you beckon to a student from the Middle or Far East; Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, Indonesia and Hong Kong. It is more acceptable to beckon with the palm down, with fingers or whole hand waving.

Point at something in the room using index finger. It is impolite to point with the index finger in the Middle and Far East. Using an open hand or your thumb is more acceptable.

Make a "V" sign. T his means "Victory" in most of Europe when you make this sign with your palm facing away from you. If you face your palm in, the same gesture means "Shove it." Very few gestures are universally understood and interpreted. What is perfectly acceptable in the United States may be rude, or even obscene, in other cultures.

Smile. This gesture is universally understood. However, it various cultures there are different reasons for smiling. The Japanese may smile when they are confused or angry. In other parts of Asia, people may smile when they are embarrassed. People in other cultures may not smile at everyone to indicate a friendly greeting as we do in the United States. A smile may be reserved for friends. It is important not to judge students or their parents because they do not smile, or smile at what we would consider "inappropriate" times.

Sit with soles shoes showing. In many cultures this sends a rude message. In Thailand, Japan and France as well as countries of the Middle and Near East showing the soles of the feet demonstrates disrespect. You are exposing the lowest and dirtiest part of your body so this is insulting.

Form a circle with fingers to indicate "O.K." Although this gestures means "O.K." in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, there are some notable exceptions:
  • In Brazil and Germany, this gesture is obscene.
  • In Japan, this means money.
  • In France, it has the additional meaning of "zero" or "worthless."
Pat a student on the head. This is very upsetting to students from Asia. The head is the repository of the soul in the Buddhist religion. Children from cultures which are influenced by Buddhism will feel uncomfortable if their head is touched.

Pass an item to someone with one hand. - In Japan this is very rude. Even a very small item such as a pencil must be passed with two hands. In many Middle and Far Eastern countries it is rude to pass something with your left hand which is considered "unclean."

Wave hand with the palm facing outward to greet someone. In Europe, waving the hand back and forth can mean "No." To wave "good-bye," raise the palm outward and wag the fingers in unison.

Nod head up and down to say Yes.  In Bulgaria and Greece, nodding your head up and down means "No."


Dodie said...

Thanks for this post- when we do our 'celebrate cultural diversity' with our new teachers I will share.

Joann said...

This post is a real eye-opener! Thanks.

Mike Harrison said...

Interesting post (and blog), Judie.

There's an interesting activity on gestures in the book Conversation by Rob Nolasco and Lois Arthur. I definitely learnt something about my students' cultures from doing it.

Another gesture I can add - shaking your head. For people from Sri Lanka this means yes - very confusing when I started teaching!!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I'm teaching some Japanese students about American gestures today so these comparisons are really helpful! I would like to clarify a couple things, though, if that's all right?

There's actually a difference between the American "OK" sign and the Japanese "money" sign. When we mean "OK" we usually hold our hand up, palm facing away from us. To make the "money" sign, though, you hold your hand lower (stomach or waist level) and your palm is toward your body. In Japan, it also isn't typically considered rude to touch young children on the head, though there may be exceptions.