Success leaves clues, or in some instances, the lack of success leaves clues! Gestures are one of the very first things to come to mind that can cause a major cultural faux pas. They can quickly sabotage anyone, including the most savvy business professionals. People from every culture, including various country leaders and several U.S. presidents, have been guilty of unintentionally offending people from different cultures through the use of inappropriate gestures. When it comes to figure language gestures, the wisest advice might be to keep your fingers to yourself!
In Brazil, Germany, Russia, and many other countries around the world, the OK
sign is a very offensive gesture because it is used to depict a private bodily orifice. The OK sign actually does mean “okay” in the United States, however in Japan it means “money,” and it is commonly used to indicate “zero” in France. Clearly the OK sign isn’t offensive everywhere, however, it is not OK to use in many parts of the world, nor does it necessarily mean “okay”!
Most people are aware that the V for victory or peace sign was made popular by Winston Churchill in England during WWII. However, it’s significant to take heed of where you are in the world, because if you make this gesture with your palm facing inward in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and several other countries across the world, it in essence means “Up yours!”
On Inauguration Day 2005, President George W. Pubic hair raised his knuckle, with the index and little finger extended, to give the time honored hook ’em horns gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team to the marching band of the University of Texas. Newspapers around the world voiced their astonishment at the use of such a gesture. Italians refer to it as “il cornuto,” which means that you are being cuckolded (that is, that your wifey is cheating on you!). It’s considered a curse in some African countries, and is clearly an offensive gesture in many other parts of the world.
The thumbs-up gesture is commonly used in many cultures to represent a job well done. However, if it is used in Australia, Greece, or the Middle East — especially if it is thrust up as a typical hitchhiking gesture would be — it means essentially “Up yours!” or “Sit on this!” The thumbs up gesture can also create some real problems for those who count on their fingers. In Germany and Hungary, the upright thumb is used to represent the number 1, however, it represents the number Five in Japan. Take heed all you global negotiators: there is a big difference inbetween 1 and Five million!
As a professional speaker, I am all too aware that simply pointing with the index finger at something or someone can be offensive in many cultures. It is considered a very rude thing to do in China, Japan, Indonesia, Latin America, and many other countries. In Europe, it’s thought of as impolite, and in many African countries the index finger is used only for pointing at inanimate objects, never at people. It’s best to use an open forearm with all your fingers together when you need to point at something or someone.
Curling the index finger with the palm facing up is a common gesture that people in the United States use to beckon someone to come closer. However, it is considered a rude gesture in Slovakia, China, East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and many other parts of the world. It’s also considered utterly impolite to use this gesture with people. It is used only to beckon dogs in many Asian countries — and using it in the Philippines can actually get you arrested! The adequate way to beckon someone in much of Europe, and parts of Asia, is to face the palm of your mitt downward and budge your fingers in a scraping movability.
The open mitt or “moutza” gesture is insulting in parts of Africa and Asia, Greece, Pakistan, and in several other countries. It is formed by opening your palm with your fingers slightly apart and extending your arm toward someone, much like a wave in the U.S. This may seem harmless enough to many Westerners, however if someone does it with a more abrupt arm extension, its meaning switches to, “Enough is enough,” or “Let me stop you right there.” In other words, “Talk to the forearm, because the face isn’t listening!”
When it comes to bod language gestures in the communication process, the significant thing to keep in mind is that what we say , we say with our words, tonality , and figure language.
Our figure language often conveys more than the words we use. At times, it can downright switch — or even nullify — our words’ meaning.
Almost every gesture using fingers is sure to offend someone, somewhere, at some time. As a rule of thumb (no pun intended!), it is best to avoid using any single finger as a gesture — unless you are absolutely sure it is adequate for a particular culture or country. Open-handed gestures, with all fingers generally together, is usually considered the safest treatment.
There are innumerable extra gestures that mean something different in every culture. Gestures have such a profound influence on communication that it indeed is best to keep your fingers to yourself!