Meanings of Gestures in Other Cultures

Written by julie vickers
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Meanings of Gestures in Other Cultures
It is important to understand the meanings of hand signals and head movements, which differ in cultures around the world. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Nonverbal communication, such as the use of gestures, helps to complement and reinforce meanings of verbal messages. However, when communicating with people from cultures that are different from your own, it is important to understand possible contradictions in the meanings of gestures such as hand signals and head movements. An understanding of how gestural meanings vary between different cultures enables smooth and pleasant communications, and helps to avoid embarrassment and misinterpretations.

Hand Signals

Professor Charles H. Tidwell, junior at Andrews University in Michigan explains that hand shakes are common gestures in the United States and Western Europe, and touching someone, for example, on the arm, is often used to offer support or to gain attention by people from regions such as North America, France and Italy. However, people from Islamic cultures may disapprove of any public touching across the genders, while they accept same-sex touching. Tidwell adds that people from Islamic and Hindu cultures use their right hand only for tasks such as greeting and eating, while the left hand is reserved for toilet functions. Using the left hand for other tasks is regarded as a "social insult."

Finger Signals

Raising one hand with fingers extended upward, and palm facing outward commonly means "Stop!" among most cultures. However, people of Greek or Turkish origin may also read it as a rude and angry gesture of dismissal, says Allan Pease, author of "The Definitive Book of Body Language."

In the United States and the United Kingdom, raising the thumb from a clenched fist, or the "thumbs up" signal, and making a circle with the index finger and thumb, suggest positive or affirmative meanings. However, people from regions such as Iran, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Latin America, may regard these gestures as obscene. Upward extensions of the index finger and middle finger, with the palm facing inward, signifies "two" in the United States, and "peace" in France, while in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Malta it is a gesture that carries insulting connotations, says Pease. Pointing with the index finger may offend people of Asian origin, says Tidwell.

Head Signals

For most cultures, shaking the head from side to side indicates a negative reply, while nodding the head is an affirmative gesture. However, in Albania and Bulgaria there is reversal of meaning of "no" and "yes" head gestures, says Norine Dresser, author of "Multicultural Manners."

Tidwell emphasises that people of Asian culture may avoid touching the head because they believe that it "houses the soul and touch puts it in jeopardy."

Japanese people may nod their head as a casual way of greeting someone, or use a deeper bow as a sign of respect, according to the Japan-Guide website. Westerners may find this gesture too obsequious for everyday use.

Body Signals

Dr. Manie Spoelstra explains on the Negotiation Training website that it is disrespectful to point your whole foot, or the sole of your foot, toward people of Islamic culture -- for example, when sitting with your legs crossed. Tidwell adds that showing the soles of the feet may also cause offence to someone who originates from Thailand, while sitting with legs crossed is offensive to people from Ghana and Turkey.

Keeping your hands in your pockets when talking to someone may seem a relaxed and casual gesture to people from North America or the United Kingdom, but to Turkish people, it may signify disrespect, says Tidwell.

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