Gestures in foreign countries

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When body and sign language mean something else
In Bulgaria, people shake their heads up and down when they mean “no,” and side to side when they mean “yes.”
Russians knew that and complied with local custom when they entered Bulgaria.
By the same token, the Bulgarians when speaking to the Russians tried to follow the norm of up and down for “yes” and back and forth for “no.”
It’s safe to say that no one ever knew what the other meant.
When I was in high school, I remember one teacher making the statement that if two people from different parts of the world were stranded together on a desert island they would learn how to survive together through sign language.
But, gestures across cultures are frequently misinterpreted.
One of the classic blunders with gestures occurred with Richard Nixon. In the 1950s, Nixon, who was then vice president, made a goodwill tour of Latin America. As a youth I couldn’t understand why the people threw rocks at his motorcade.
The pictures from his famous trip showed him disembarking from the plane, flashing the “A-OK” sign. I didn’t realize the significance of that until much later in life. When I learned that the “A-OK” sign means the same as the middle finger does here where Nixon got off the plane, the reasons for the stoning fell in place. (US relations with Latin America hadn’t been all that good over the years.)
Another of our positive gestures, the thumbs up, is so obscene in Nigeria that American tourists who have tried to hitchhike there have ended up in fist fights or worse. In Australia a jubilant American giving an Australian a thumbs up can receive a quick punch in the nose.
In England where the “V” for victory sign originated, if the “V” is given with the palm facing inward, it can lead to a “bloody” situation from an irate Briton. The “Hook em’ Horns” sign of the University of Texas has some colloquial meanings in the US, but in Italy and parts of Africa you would rather give the sign to a University of Oklahoma fan.
When I have a speaking engagement, I always make an effort to find out as much as I can about my audience. Whenever circumstances prevent me from getting a good clear understanding of the audience, I always worry about the impact of my message. A joke that falls flat because it hits too close to a major problem the audience is experiencing, or an idea that you present that generates a lot of controversy are situations that may spell failure. Even company cultures can present enough difference to ensure that messages could be misinterpreted.
Professional speakers, salesmen, corporate executives, and others are all aware of the importance of knowing a client, audience, or the corporate culture of a potential customer. Learn as much as you can about the cultures where you are selling your products or hope to sell your products.
If you are interested in more stories like those dealing with gestures and body language, an excellent source is Roger Axtell’s Gestures, The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. If you don’t have time to look into a book and are rushing off to catch a plane to your next international assignment, remember the obvious isn’t always so obvious, and how you interpret what you see may have nothing to do with the real meaning of a situation.
Waukesha international business consultant Joe Geck can be contacted via e-mail at
June 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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