People express themselves nonverbally with the use of gestures (Archer 80). For instance, doing an A-OK sign by making a circle with one’s index finger and thumb is an expression of approval to most Americans. When former U.S. President Richard Nixon deplaned in Caracas, Venezuela in 1956, he flashed two A-OK signs with his fingers to a group of demonstrators and caused a riot to erupt. The former President was later briefed that the meaning of the A-OK sign to Americans was equivalent to raising the middle finger to Venezuelans (Moran, Harris, and Moran 63). Despite being a crucial tool in effective communication, the meaning of nonverbal signals or gestures that people apply varies across different cultures. Hence, gestures are often misinterpreted.
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The silent signals attached to nonverbal communication are revealing. They can tell us motives, emotions, and feelings such as indecisions, honesty, joy, frustration, approval, anger, and many more (Goman). Being able to catch the meaning of the tiniest gestures that people make is important in everyday interpersonal communication and especially in the business world. Knowing what offends and what does not, what is proper and what is not, is an edge that individuals must be equipped with if they are to succeed in this competitive world (Stolte). Now that we live in a globalized world, diversity is a reality that all face – and cultural differences in gestures need to be understood if we are to promote harmonious and effective communication. This paper presents cultural differences in gestures and nonverbal signals that have been studied or revealed in literature.
Different Gestures, Different Meanings
Subtle nonverbal practices or actions need to be understood because they have the possibility of offending others.
The use of fingers, hands, and feet
The thumbs-up sign which equates to “Great!” in the U.S. has a different meaning in other countries. In Australia, Bangladesh and Nigeria, this gesture is considered insulting (Kohl). In South Asian countries, gesturing to someone to accompany him to where he or she is supposed to sit down should not be made using the index finger in order to point to the location. This gesture is applicable only to animals. The polite way to beckon individuals to their seats is to bow slightly and with the back of your hand, indicate the place which you wish them to sit (Goman). Hailing a taxi cab could get different results depending on how you raise the palm of your hand. When you hail a cab with the palm of your hand raised, Asian cab drivers will interpret it as an aggressive gesture. In order to hail a cab properly and politely, the back of the hand must be held at the thigh level (Jones 4).
Another source of difference in interpretation is the use of fingers (Stolte). Generally, when one hold up two fingers in the air, this means “two.” While this may seem a universally true interpretation, it means differently in other countries. Germany and France interprets the holding up of two fingers as three; therefore, tourists who order beer using this gesture will always get three beers at a bar in Germany. In both countries, counting always starts with the thumb. Hence, when Americans and Canadian use two fingers to count (also to say “Peace!”), the Germans and French will count two by using their thumb and a finger (also interpreted as a gun). Australians indicate “time to drink up” by folding three fingers of the hand against the palm, leaving the thumb and little finger sticking straight up and out. The same gesture means “six” in China (Jones 4).
Another source of confusion is how to use the fingers and hand to call the attention of someone (Moran, Harris, and Moran 64). For instance, calling the attention of a waiter or waitress is done differently in different countries. In North America, all you need to do is to say “Miss,” or “Sir,” raise a finger or tilt your head to one side to call attention. Snapping one’s fingers is considered impolite and disrespectful. In China and other Asian countries, the same task is accomplished by clinking a cup or a glass with your ring or a spoon. In Middle Eastern countries, clapping hands achieves the same result. In Japan, calling attention requires extending your arm slightly upward, palm down, and fluttering your fingers. In Spain and Latin America, people extend their hands, palm down, and then rapidly open and close their fingers (Jones 4).
Handedness is also a source of confusion. All Muslim countries and some Asian nations consider the left hand as dirty and sinister, hence, using the left hand in receiving or presenting objects is frowned upon. The left hand’s use is for toileting and hygiene and is hence considered filthy (Jones 4). When taking food or other materials, one must always use the right hand (Goman). In Muslim countries, meals are communal gatherings and people scoop one’s food with flat bread from a bowl found on the center. People sharing the food always use their right hand in scooping viand from the bowl. In Asian countries, using the right hand is the polite way of interacting with others. It is so because the right hand is the more dominant and adroit hand. When presenting or receiving a gift or any material however, Asians generally use both hands to signal one’s appreciation for the goodwill (Jones 2).
Shaking hands does not have a universal meaning or interpretation. In fact, the shaking of hands is particularly Western (Kohl). When dealing with other cultures, the rule is to never assume that the person in front of you or beside you is willing to shake your hand. Another rule especially true in Islamic countries is to never shake a woman’s hand. Another rule is not to shake someone’s hand unless that person extends his or her hand first (Goman). This is why some Americans who offer to shake someone’s hand upon first meetings are considered invasive and arrogant (Early and Ang 21). There are also ways in which shaking hands must be performed. For women in Asian countries, shaking hands means touching each other’s hands in a gentle manner. Even among men, the “bone-crushing” grip that is used by Western men when they shake hands is frowned upon in Eastern countries and is considered aggressive. Men of the Middle East and Asia simply brush their palms, which most Western men may find effeminate but for the former constitutes superior breeding and proper manners (Jones 3).
A pat in the head or in the back is not similarly interpreted in different countries. In the US, patting the head of a small child is interpreted as affectionate. This gesture would be frowned upon in Malaysia and other Islamic countries because they believe that the head, being the source of spiritual and intellectual powers of a person, should be untouched (Early and Ang 22). Moreover, how Americans slap each other in the back to express camaraderie, delight, or to offer congratulations is not proper in Asian countries. This gesture would be considered aggressive and improper (Jones 5).
Gestures that use the foot also hold different meanings for different cultures. In most cultures, such as in Asia and the Middle East, the sole of the foot is filthy and should be covered. Exposing the soles of the feet is disrespectful and insulting. Arabs usually direct the sole of the shoe toward the floor and do not do the typical leg-crossing of Western men where the calf or ankle of the crossing leg rests on the thigh of the other leg (Goman). In addition, among the people of a Laos tribe, when a woman taps the tap of a gentleman’s foot with hers, she is indicating her desire to have sexual intercourse (Jones 5).
Eye contact is very important in the West. Avoiding direct eye contact as seen in the movies is one way of detecting whether someone is lying (Goman). Hence, in Western culture, anybody who fails to maintain good eye contact is considered suspicious (Kohl). Other interpretations of people who avoid direct eye contact are unfriendly, insecure, untrustworthy, inattentive, and impersonal (Moran, Harris, and Moran 63). Conversely, avoiding one’s gaze is a gesture of respect and of knowing one’s place in Asian culture (Jones 3). For instance, Japanese children are socialized in school to focus their gaze on someone’s tie knot or an Adam’s apple. In China and in Japan, adults lower their gaze when speaking to a superior as a gesture of respect. In Latin American cultures and some Africa cultures, such as Nigeria, prolonged eye contact from one individual of lower status is considered disrespectful (Moran, Harris, and Moran 63).
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Staring is considered very rude in America while staring in China and other countries just indicates mere curiosity over someone and is not considered impolite or disrespectful (Kohl). In England, people are taught to pay strict attention to a speaker, to listen carefully, and to blink one’s eyes to indicate comprehension or that one is listening. Americans signal interest and comprehension by bobbing their heads or grunting. A widening of the eyes can also be interpreted differently. For example, take the case of an American and a Chinese discussing the terms of a proposed contract. Regardless of the language in which the transaction is carried out, the U.S. may interpret a Chinese person’s widened eyes as an expression of astonishment instead of its true meaning of politely suppressed Asian anger. (Moran, Harris, and Moran 64).
Recent studies reveal differences across cultures on the amount of touch applied and whether touch is displayed in public or in private (Early and Ang 78). For instance, in Tonga, when couples or families are parted, they weave their arms around one another, pray, and chant. Europeans usually lock in an embrace or share a passionate kiss publicly. Koreans do not use touch publicly. Moreover, it is customary for Austrian men to kiss the hand of a lady recently met in a restaurant and to go far as walk her to her table. While some cultures may find this disturbing or offensive, this is considered polite manners in Austria (Kohl).
One of the most significant studies on gestural difference across cultures was conducted by Dane Archer in 1997. Basing his data on a documentary made on people from various parts of the globe taking U.S. English as a Second Language, he provided a detailed inventory of some of the most commonly misinterpreted gestures from cultures all over the world. While errors are almost always forgiven, misinterpretation of gestures often leads to irritation, annoyance, and frustration among persons communicating. Below is an inventory of the gestural differences (Archer 81):
- “Good-Bye” = “Come Here” (Japan)
- “Good Luck” (U.S.) = “Screw You” (Iran)
- “Good Luck” (U.S.) = “Boyfriend” (Japan)
- “Screw You” (U.S.) = “I Don’t Believe You” (Uruguay)
- “I’m Angry” (Nepal) = “You Are Afraid” (Mexico)
- “OK” (U.S.) = “Money” (Japan)
- “OK” (U.S.) = “Sex” (Mexico)
- “OK” (U.S.) = “Homosexual” (Ethiopia)
- “Killed/Dead” (U.S. throat slash) = “Lost a Job” (Japan)
- “Homosexual” (U.S.) = “Henpecked” (Mexico)
Globalization has also meant respect, tolerance, and understanding of diverse cultures. The use of body language, hands, eyes, feet, fingers, and touch mean something to one culture and differently to another. As communication becomes increasingly intercultural, the need to be informed of how nonverbal communication across cultures vary enable us to be careful of what we say, how we use gestures, and how we apply nonverbal cues in order to get our message across effectively.
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