Communicating with Gestures

Communicating with Gestures

by Judie Haynes

Very few gestures are universally understood and interpreted. What is perfectly acceptable in the United States may be rude, or even obscene, in other cultures.

Understanding Different Interpretations of Common Gestures

It is important for mainstream teachers to understand how the gestures they use unconsciously may be misunderstood. This activity allows participants to look a little closer at how body language might be interpreted by English Language Learners and their parents.

Demonstrate the gestures below and ask participants to write down what they think each gesture means. Participants should also indicate if they think the gesture is considered rude in the United States. Have group discuss how body language could influence communication between cultures.

Answer Key for Body Language Activities

Each of the following responses give a general guide to cultural differences in the meaning of gestures.

1. Beckon with index finger. This means “Come here” in the U.S. To motion with the index finger to call someone is insulting, or even obscene, in many cultures. Expect a reaction when you beckon to a student from the Middle or Far East; Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, Indonesia and Hong Kong. It is more acceptable to beckon with the palm down, with fingers or whole hand waving.

2. Point at something in the room using index finger. It is impolite to point with the index finger in the Middle and Far East. Use an open hand or your thumb (in Indonesia)

3. Make a "V" sign. This means "Victory" in most of Europe when you make this sign with your palm facing away from you. If you face your palm in, the same gesture means "Shove it."

4. Smile. This gesture is universally understood. However, it various cultures there are different reasons for smiling. The Japanese may smile when they are confused or angry. In other parts of Asia, people may smile when they are embarrassed. People in other cultures may not smile at everyone to indicate a friendly greeting as we do in the United States. A smile may be reserved for friends. It is important not to judge students or their parents because they do not smile, or smile at what we would consider "inappropriate" times.

5. Sit with soles shoes showing. In many cultures this sends a rude message. In Thailand, Japan and France as well as countries of the Middle and Near East showing the soles of the feet demonstrates disrespect. You are exposing the lowest and dirtiest part of your body so this is insulting.

6. Form a circle with fingers to indicate “O.K.” Although this means “O.K.” in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, there are some notable exceptions:

7. Pat a student on the head. This is very upsetting to students from Asia. The head is the repository of the soul in the Buddhist religion. Children from cultures which are influenced by Buddhism will feel uncomfortable if their head is touched.

8. Pass an item to someone with one hand. - In Japan this is very rude. Even a very small item such as a pencil must be passed with two hands. In many Middle and Far Eastern countries it is rude to pass something with your left hand which is considered “unclean.”

9. Wave hand with the palm facing outward to greet someone. In Europe, waving the hand back and forth can mean “No.” To wave “good-bye,” raise the palm outward and wag the fingers in unison, This is also a serious insult in Nigeria if the hand is too close to another person’s face.

10. Nod head up and down to say “Yes.” In Bulgaria and Greece, this gesture means “No.”


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