Fickle Fingers of Fate

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

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

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

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.

Varying notions of personal space can also get body signals off
to an awkward start. The Japanese maintain some of the biggest
personal bubbles, routinely standing at more than an arm’s length
apart (except on crowded subways, where they avert their eyes and
cram on in). But in the Latin world or the Middle East, you could
easily bump stomachs with your newest acquaintance. In countries
where zones of personal space are nonexistent, you could be grabbed
for a bear hug at the drop of a vodka glass.

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