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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Just A Little Flick Of The Wrist

Last week I was working on a question about gestures. I'll wait while you drag your mind out of the gutter... Desmond Morris's book Bodytalk proved to be an invaluable resource.

There are some gestures that are universal, such as nodding your head to indicate a "Yes" or pointing your finger to show someone in which direction to go. Many gestures that you might think are universal aren't. A thumb stuck up in the air is generally good, but in some countries it can be seen as a sexual insult. In the United States it is widely acknowledged that when someone grabs at their throat, that person is choking. (This meaning is even supported by the American Red Cross.) In some Arab cultures, however, the gesture can mean "I will strangle you" (208.) New Guineans will construe the action as meaning the gesturer or someone else is suicidal. Italians use it as a take-off on the "I'm fed up to here" gesture and South Americans may think that you are talking about prison! Here are some of my favorite of the more off-beat gestures:
  • To signal that you don't believe what someone is saying when you're visiting South America, simply draw your pointer finger up and down your throat a few times (211.)

  • To indicate urgency in Saudi Arabia, touch the tip of your tongue with your forefinger. Then touch the tip of your nose (224.)

  • When in The Netherlands, shape your hand into a fist and extend your thumb. Then put the tip of your thumb between your lips and blow out your cheeks. Congratulations! You have just indicated that you "Don't give a damn" (212.)
  • In North Africa, a great insult can be made by rubbing your outstretched palm down someone's face. This means "A curse on you!" (58.)

  • To insult someone in Japan, show them your hand with your fingers up and the thumb folded in, as if you were indicating the number four (64.)

  • In East Africa, make a fist and wrap your forefinger and thumb around your nose. Make a wringing gesture and exhale deeply to say "Never mind" (177.)

I must admit that we have been infected with a certain amount of glee while trying out some of these gestures. It's a valuable thing that can reduce you to giggles and teach you about another culture. Forewarned is forearmed: be careful what you gesture!

Morris, Desmond. Bodytalk. Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1994.


  1. All I could do when I read this was make a fist, stick my thumb between my lips and blow my cheeks out. It's not like I live in thouse countries. Seriously though, I'm going to remember that cheek blowing gesture for when irritating patrons walk out the door. It won't do any good and they won't see it, but secretly I'll feel better.


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