Catechism classes, as I recall them, were usually followed by attending mass, which most of us found mind-numbingly boring – and of course, gave us an excuse to talk and fool around. I remember telling my friend how creepy the life-sized statues of saints were, and pointed at a particularly nightmare-worthy one, to which my Catechism teacher hissed, “Don’t point! It’s rude and makes God angry!” I, of course, was terrified, and folded my finger under my hand for fear that my punishment would be the loss of said naughty finger. Why is it such a bad thing? And why am I remembering this now? Because I’ve been fantasizing about traveling the world and don’t want to lose a finger in the process. So after some research, here’s what I’ve discovered about body language across cultures:
What I need to remember when I get to Asia:
- Rule 1: Watch my eyes. Eye contact is always an iffy thing. I would rather not stare at anyone, no matter where I am. In general, eye contact is often considered a sign of confidence, assertiveness, and even respect in some countries, but is disrespectful in Asian and African cultures – although I suspect it’s a gray area in many parts of the world.
- Rule 2: Control my inner Italian like Bruce Banner controls the green guy. For Italians, speaking with your body is an art. Even if I wore soundproof earphones (which probably wouldn’t be effective with my family anyway), I would still be able to get the gist of what was being said through body language alone. In the Japanese culture, however, the use of gestures would be considered impolite. I totally get it – I’ve been hit in the forehead several times by the “Ma, what are you saying? Ma shaddup!” arm swing.
- Rule 3: Bend over. I’m not much of a hand-shaker, mostly because I never know what the right amount of pressure is – which is why I’m glad that in Asia, bows are the preferred greeting.
What I need to remember when I get to the Middle East:
- Rule 1: Sit with both feet on the ground. As I sit in awe gazing at the majesty of the pyramids, I’ll have to curb my tendency to cross my legs. Exposing the sole of my shoe to someone is considered very discourteous.
- Rule 2: Fonzie is not cool. A thumbs up sign is sort of like giving someone the finger. Note to self: If watching a play, clap politely or just do what everyone else is doing.
- Rule 3: I want to hold your hand! When men hold hands in public (often seen with politicians), it’s a sign of mutual respect.
What I need to remember when I get to Europe:
- Rule 1: Yes, that’s a no. Here’s the potential for major confusion: Nodding means “yes” in many countries, but actually means “no” in some parts of Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. I can already see the waiters in Greece scratching their heads as I drool over the dessert menu (“Does she want the Baklava or not?”)
- Rule 2: Don’t touch David or his wee wee. All I have to say is, thank goodness the coliseum is now a tourist attraction, and that Italy doesn’t have an emperor anymore. Otherwise, this is what headlines across the world would read: Female blogger tries to touch David statue, thrown in coliseum. Defense: She just wanted to see how big he was…as in tall…not its size…down there. Verdict: Thumbs down from the Emperor. Punishment: Lion num num.
- Rule 3: Hey, it’s not OK. Don’t use the OK sign, even if the food is delicious. It has sexual connotations in some Mediterranean countries…although I’m not entirely surprised, as it does look rather rude (just look at this guy’s face!). It may be a good idea to use it in France and Belgium, however, when indicating that I want to pay “zero” for this delicious meal, s’il vous plait.
- Rule 4: High no-no. Don’t high five anyone in Greece and Turkey, unless I want to tell them to “Go to Hell.” However, I might end up doing it on purpose if a barman in Istanbul pulls the old “I think that’s enough Raki for you miss.”
- Rule 5: That’s not what I meant! I pinky swear! If I meet a cute guy, I need to remember not to hold my pinky up. I would be implying that my cute guy is…how should I put this…not well-endowed?
- Rule 6: Curse begone! I have to remember to use the horns sign if I’m cursed or need to be protected from the “evil eye” in Italy. (I’ll have to clarify here, since my mom decided to correct me only after I posted this. If the fingers are pointing downward, it’s a sign for good luck. You’ll likely see the downward horns in the form of a charm on a lot of Italian jewellery – in order to be protected against curses. If they’re pointing up, as in the image below, it either refers to the Italian version of “Screw you!”, or “Be careful, your spouse is cheating on you.”)
Specific advice from my colleagues
When in Russia…
- Use the peace sign when you win something – it means victory.
- Wag your finger (left to right) if you don’t agree with someone.
- Wag your finger (front to back) to emphasize a point…or a threat. For example: “Bring me more caviar and vodka… seichas!”
When in the Czech Republic…
- Don’t use the horns sign as you would in Italy…and especially not with someone who’s married, as it implies that their spouse is cheating on them.
- Wave your middle finger freely, because it doesn’t have a negative connotation here!
- Tap a finger on your head if you want to imply that someone is crazy.
Rugsaken, K. (2006). Body speaks: Body language around the world. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/body-speaks.aspx, January 29, 2014.
Thumbs signal. (2014, January 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:50, January 29, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thumbs_signal&oldid=592267860
Westsidetoastmasters.com. (undefined). Cultural Differences. In Dimensions of Body Language. Retrieved January 29, 2014, from http://westsidetoastmasters.com/resources/book_of_body_language/chap5.html.
(..and a thank you to my colleagues!)