Credit: Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz
Our ancestors learned to use gestures to communicate before they began to speak. It has been part of the human DNA ever since. But the practice can be a double-edge sword. Sometimes, it can lead to misunderstanding.
Last Saturday, I went to the post office to mail a package. After standing in line for about 20 minutes, I finally found myself second in line to be served. When one of the two postal employees at the counter became open, I made a gesture to the guy ahead of me to get his attention.
“Don’t point,” he glared at me.
Oops! I meant well. I was just trying to be nice, but instead of getting a positive reaction from him, I got the exact opposite.
Time and time again, I have been reminded that finger-pointing is considered rude in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Unfortunately, bad habits die hard. Even if you think you have gotten rid of them, they tend to resurface once in a while.
Like finger-pointing, many seemingly innocuous gestures in one country can get you in trouble in another country due to cultural differences. Here are some examples:
In the Philippines, curling your index finger to beckon somebody to come to you is highly offensive. It’s usually reserved for a dog. It was probably the reason why I quit my first job in New York when my team leader did it to me. I found it personally demeaning.
In Bulgaria, I learned that nodding means “no” and turning your head left and right means “yes”. Just imagine the fun I had when asking the locals for directions.
In Italy, I got confused when I saw the hotel staff waving as we were leaving as if they wanted us to come back. It was actually the opposite. It was their way of saying good-bye.
In Greece, putting the palm out towards somebody like a traffic cop signaling “stop” is the most insulting gesture among the Greeks. Be forewarned when traveling over there.
No doubt about it, gestures improve communication and help get our point across. It can even be a life-saver when traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language. Still, it pays to be discreet. We have to be careful where and when we use them.