Listen to the hand

Hands can talk – they can say a lot. They can be mean or they can make you blush. Think about your drive to work. It’s early morning, the Deerfoot is at its usual height of madness and in the lane next to you is a complete idiot who is trying to get into your lane. What the hell is he thinking of? Eventually you pull back a little to let him in just to get him out of the way and what does he do? ….

He flashes you the courtesy wave. Wow …. what a difference that makes. Suddenly he is not such a dufus….. just a busy (polite) guy trying to get to work.

But you have to be careful how you use hand signals – and if you don’t get it right you could look like a right twit. I love the story of Sir Winston Churchill who decided to adopt the “V” for victory sign at the beginning of the war. The only problem was he got it backwards. Here is an early photo of him ….

Well as one of his secretaries at the war office pointed out to him this was a rude sign (at least in England). When he asked exactly what it meant she softened it down and said it meant “Up your bum!”. (It actually is much worse than that.) That’s OK. Churchill was a quick learner and switched the V around so that it became respectable.

You might find yourself making a similar mistaken when you travel. For example – how often might you offer this hand signal when you don’t know the language …

As in – “thanks mate” … “good luck” …. Well don’t use this gesture in the Middle East or West Africa. It’s pretty much the same as “giving them the finger” if you know what I mean.

Ever find yourself crossing your fingers for good luck – well don’t do this in Vietnam. It is regarded as an extremely rude gesture. Nodding and shaking your head can also get you into trouble. Generally if you nod your head it means “yes” as in “Is this your round, mate?” Nod nod. Yes I will buy this round.

But it depends where in the world you are as Wikipedia explains –
“NOD …. To indicate refusal. There are few exceptions with some countries swapping the meanings between nodding and shaking head: in Greece, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria, Albania, and Sicily a single nod of the head up (not down) indicates a “no”. “

This all sounds pretty complicated – so maybe you can travel the world and get by with a smile to all concerned. …. Nope – sorry. Do this in Russia and they will all think you are a blithering idiot…. This was discussed in a recent article in Business Insider – one of the writers being Masha Garstein, a Professor of Psychology at Washington State University, who grew up and was educated in Moscow. The article explains in more detail …

” ………Masha – is a Russian immigrant. She’ll be quick to tell you that in Russia, randomly smiling at strangers in public is often viewed as a sign of mental illness or inferior intellect. Of course, in the U.S. and many other countries, smiling is a common, reflexive gesture of goodwill.

There is, indeed, truth to the “smiling gap”: In our psychology research, we’ve noticed a striking difference in how often people smile in the United States when compared to Russia. To Americans, it might be easy to assume that this says something about Russians – that they’re an unfriendly, callous people.

But that’s not the case at all. Instead, it’s worth looking at why certain expressions, like smiling, become a key part of social exchanges in some cultures and not others.”

It’s a fascinating article and is worth reading in full.

So what’s the lesson here? When in Rome* do as the Romans* do…. *substitute relevant country.

And if you don’t know what the Romans do – buy the book before you go and do your homework.

4th century A.D. — — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

By Lesley Keyter

Lesley Keyter is the face of travel in the fast growing city of Calgary. Every week since 1997 she has has featured live on the Morning News Global TV.

1 comment

  1. This is the hardest part of traveling for me because things like smiling and nodding are so reflexive. It’s almost like learning to walk again, except backwards.


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