Fickle Fingers of Fate


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Anna Mecagni didn't know Portuguese when she traveled through Brazil, so she had to improvise. Her fluent Spanish was enough to get a conversation started but practically useless when it came to comprehending the response. So the business student from Los Angeles opted to use the international language (or so she thought) of gestures-shrugging shoulders, cocking eyebrows, nodding her head and talking with her hands. She had the last word every time she flashed the okay sign. Brazilians consider the Rodney Dangerfield-trademark circled thumb and forefinger a vulgar reference to the female anatomy. Mecagni had to fumble her way through more than a few apologies once she realized the error of her ways.

The lesson: Never assume that the routine body language of home will be universally understood. In countries like Brazil (and Russia and Germany, where the okay sign translates simply to 'you asshole'), an innocent, misdirected digit can lead to an instant communication breakdown, red faces and floods of foreign invective. 'As an American, you get so used to flashing the okay sign, it's hard to interpret it any other way,' Mecagni explains. 'It got to the point where I had to physically restrain my impulse to do it.'

That reflexive urge is hard to resist. Researchers say 90 percent of our emotions are expressed without uttering a single word. Apparently we wear our hearts not only on our sleeves, but everywhere else, too. 'Gestures are woven inextricably into our social lives,' maintains Roger Axtell in Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. 'Both individuals and groups still send vital messages by gesture, by pantomime, by dramatics-by a dizzy diversity of what scholars call nonverbal communications.'

These signals can be powerful emotional triggers, causing friends to come to blows, creating friendships among strangers, evoking passion in the apathetic and conveying hidden intentions without a word spoken. Axtell cites the example of a young Western hitchhiker in Nigeria who was roughed up by a passing crew of motorists who took offense at his upturned thumb, an extremely rude gesture in those parts. Down Under, an American couple's appreciative thumbs-up to a highway officer who decided not to fine them for a moving violation provoked a severe backlash-a litany of curses and a stiff penalty. The couple had signaled 'screw you' with a vertical up-yours thumb.

'The same gestures do not mean the same things in other parts of the world. This is the first-grade part of it,' declares Axtell, who has clasped hands with Arab businessmen, hugged Argentine co-workers and bowed to Japanese hosts, all part of his mission to find out what embarrassing things people around the world are saying to each other by means of errantly moving body parts.

It's the socially acquired gestures that get us into trouble, the ones that are so built into our daily lives that they become knee-jerk responses. Of these, hand signals seem to be the biggest culprit. Besides the okay sign, other bad moves include the vertical horns-when your pinkie and forefinger stand upright like a rowdy concertgoer's-and the 'V' for victory or peace sign, which, when done with the palm facing inward, invites former and current subjects of the British queen to do the same thing the upturned middle finger suggests in the U.S. George Bush insulted thousands of Australians on a 1991 visit to Australia with a V for victory that signified something less than victorious. Meanwhile, the vertical-horns gesture is an accusation of cuckoldry in Italy, a good luck sign in Venezuela. In India, it's the symbol for bovines.

Even some of the most basic gestures in your repertoire can mean something completely different somewhere else. In Greece and Turkey, for example, nodding your head up and down signals no, and shaking it side to side means yes. For most people, that's like writing with the wrong hand for a day-incredibly unnatural. And the truth is, that's the way it is with so many gestures from other cultures. They just don't feel right. But neither does a glass of Fanta tossed in your face.