So you’ve booked that trip to a far-flung destination. You’ve packed your bag, learnt a bit of the local lingo, and feel pretty confident about catching a chunk of the native culture. Not long now, right?
But while you might be ready to roll vocally, considering the alternative cultural signals of your non-verbal communications is a must. As different countries associate gestures differently – minding your manners may not be enough to avoid a major cultural blunder!
Warning Signs – Signals To Watch For
Gestures are funny things. Ingrained in our cultural memories since childhood, they’re largely automatic, unconscious actions – so making a few mistakes can be expected! Your in-country hosts should understand if they’re innocent! So from finishing (or not finishing) all the food on your plate, to inappropriate pointing and beckoning, to avoid misunderstanding, offence and trouble, a few no-go’s include:
The P.D.A Posse
Public displays of affection can be risky at the best of times. Even at home, couples who get a little too close can encourage disapproving looks and tutting – but watch out, star-crossed lovers! Abroad, such mushy behaviour can reach new heights of onlooker displeasure – handholding, hugging and especially heavy petting – can be a serious no-no. Past-puberty, hand-holding is a sign that two people are a couple, and in some places, especially those with strict homosexuality laws, such obvious gestures have even become criminal offences. In India, China, parts of Africa and Southern Asia, it’s wise to keep a reserved attitude and respect personal space, though if you’re in Latin America or Europe you can expect a more liberal approach to open-air affection.
If you’re naturally left handed, you should be extra conscious of your actions. Why? Because in a lot of cultures the left hand is the one used for more unclean, bathroom-based activities. So when shaking hands, eating or giving items to people in India and lot of the Muslim countries, keep to the right, and you’ll be alright.
Playing that ever present game of ‘travellers charades’, the good ol’ fashioned thumbs up can be incredibly difficult to avoid – it’s an instant friendly sign of “hey! Things are good!” right? Well unfortunately, wrong. If you’re wandering through the Middle East, Latin America, parts of Western Africa and places in Russia, this innocent action becomes the equivalent of ‘up yours!’. Literally. Watch where you’re putting your thumbs.
If you’re on a dive trip exploring an underwater world of tropic reefs and wrecks, then this symbol is pretty well accepted to mean things are alright. And in the USA and UK at least, that’s exactly what it’ll be taken as. But go to Greece, Turkey, the Middle East or Brazil, and it can become an accusatory sign of homosexuality, referencing a particular anatomical orifice, means ‘zero’ or ‘worthless’ in France, and can pretty much be taken as a general ‘eff-you’. Not ok!
The ‘Stop Right Now, Thank You Very Much’
The “woah, thanks-very-much-for-that-meal-but-couldn’t-possibly-eat-more,” five-fingers-palms-out ‘halt’ gesture may be a simple, courteous way to signal ‘stop’ to you, but in countries such as Greece, the Middle East and parts of Africa, this is known as ‘The Moutza’. Laced in history, this symbolises anything from ‘I’m not listening to you’ to miming shoving (shall we say unpleasant bodily substances?) into someones face. In early Greece, ‘Moutzos’ were originally cinders, rubbed in the face of criminals or prisoners to humiliate them. As you may have imagined, cinders evolved to include other dirty things. So don’t get people to talk to the hand or high-five you if you’re not 100% sure they’ll get it. They might deliberately miss, and hit you square in the face.
Misunderstandings caused by traditional gender perceptions (especially Saudi Arabia), or through language blunders can cause problems too, so you might want to do a little cultural background research to prepare before your trip. Having said this – don’t go too native! People will know you’re a foreigner on your travels and expect you to make the odd mistake. So while a respectful nod to other cultures is OK, don’t go overboard, and watch your gestures!
Jon Kaagman is a freelance writer and travel blogger, and has provided this article on behalf of Communicaid a culture and business communication skills consultancy based in the UK offering cross cultural training amongst other services.