I have been reading Gayle Cotton’s 2013 book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere, and I recommend this book to you if you need to communicate cross-culturally. There is a lot of great advice in it. Her chapter on gestures highlights nine different hand gestures and their meanings in different cultures. I wanted to describe three of them in addition to the “OK” gesture. Knowing these are subject to misinterpretation could save you grief in cross-cultural communication.
1. In the 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon emerged from an airplane in Brazil gesturing to the crowd with the “OK” sign – both hands. You know the gesture I mean: making a circle with thumb and forefinger with the remaining fingers extended. A gesture that signifies “OK” in the US, however, has a very different meaning in Brazil (and Germany and Russia), where it symbolizes a particular bodily orifice that I don’t discuss in this blog and that is never mentioned in polite conversation. In many other cultures, the “OK” sign isn’t as offensive as it is in Brazil, but it may well mean something entirely different than what it means to American audiences. In Japan, it signifies money. In France, it means “worthless.”
My advice is to avoid using the “OK” gesture with cross-cultural audiences. You may be saying something with it that you don’t intend.
2. We’ve all seen photos of Winston Churchill extending his forefinger and index finger upward in a “V.” To Churchill, the gesture meant “‘V’ for victory.” Then in the 1960s, before it was co-opted by Richard Nixon as a sign of his personal success, it came to be regarded as a peace sign. Regardless of which of the three meanings you intend, the proper way to make the gesture is with your palm facing outward. When you make it with an inward-facing palm, in many cultures, it is a way of saying, “Up yours!
3. Then there’s the friendly thumbs-up gesture. In the US, it usually means “well done.” But in Iraq, as we learned during the American invasion, it means “Up yours!” The thumbs-up gesture also carries offense in parts of West Africa, Russia, Australia, Iran, Greece, and Sardinia.
4. In the US, pointing with the index finger is how you call on a member of the audience. But in many countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America, pointing at someone that way is considered rude. In some African countries, you may point with your index finger, but only at inanimate objects, never at people
Must you learn every possible hand gesture and its meaning in order to avoid offending cross-cultural audiences? That might be a good idea. But something I noticed in Cotton’s chapter is that eight of the nine problematical gestures involve the fingers. To me, that means you can ensure a certain amount of safety by never using your fingers in a gesture. Whether you are calling on a member of the audience, pointing something out on a slide, or raising your hand for emphasis, use your whole hand and you will get your point across with much less chance for offense. But don’t just use your hand. Use your whole arm. It will animate you dramatically and keep the focus off your hand. At Communispond, we believe in gestures, and our Executive Presentation Skills® program teaches how to do them effectively, even in different cultures.