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Your body language may be bawdy to some

Linguist Edward Sapir defined non-verbal communication as the “elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.” He could have added to the end of the sentence the clause “members of a particular culture.” For if you don’t understand the rudimentary gestures of a society, you’ll find it difficult to communicate effectively notwithstanding some fluency in the particular language.

I was reminded of how varied gestures can be while enjoying a café écremé at a Parisian café two years ago. Some English-speaking patrons were trying to get the attention of a waiter and were gesticulating wildly with their hands and fingers. This led to their waiter swearing under his breath because in French society such palpable pointing is considered rude, and one seeking the attention of a waiter would be better advised to tip the head back slightly and just say s’il vous plait.

Mind you, the French do gesticulate a lot with their hands and one can sometimes even discern details of a conversation from a distance without hearing a word. There are many other useful gesticulations that may be helpful to know while in France. For example, if you want someone to speak in a softer voice, raise your index finger in the air. In order to emphasize the importance of what you are about to say or to indicate that you are going to reprimand someone, wave your finger back and forth. On the other hand, if you want  someone to “shut up,” the ferme-la gesture gets the point across by holding your hand out in the shape of a C and then squeezing the fingers and thumb together.

Beware though that a gesture you are familiar with might mean something entirely different in France. The O.K. sign (thumb and forefinger forming a circle) is usually a Gallic way of expressing that something is worthless.

More serious still, while for us a sign made with the second and fifth fingers is a challenge towards the veracity of someone’s position, i.e. the “B.S.” sign, for University of Texas football fans, it is known as the “hook ’em horns” sign and is flashed as a signal of support for their team, the Longhorns. But in Italy, this sign can signify that a man is being cuckolded and hence it would not be prudent for two Texas alumni to flash their alma mater’s symbol in an Italian bar, notwithstanding that both gestures have their origin in livestock – the longhorn for Texans, and the goat for Italians.

When shopping in Rhodes this summer, I saw an American tourist extend his palm outward in an effort to stop the come-on of an aggressive street vendor. The vendor visibly recoiled, as in Greece this gesture is known as the moutza, and dates back to ancient Greece when fecal matter was thrown at war prisoners.

Even when traveling in a fellow English-speaking country, we must adapt our gestures. The “V for victory” sign, immortalized by Winston Churchill and adopted by peaceniks, is only valid in the palm-outward position. When the palm is in the inward position, one is literally giving someone “the finger.” Brits are, generally speaking, not aware that this dichotomy does not transcend the British Isles. Desmond Morris, in Manwatching, relates that “Englishmen when travelling abroad have often been nonplussed at the total failure of this sign (palm inward) when directed, say, towards an Italian driver.” Chances are that the Italian motorist will just wave and smile, leaving the Brit in an apoplectic state.

When travelling abroad it is wise to know when your body language could become bawdy language.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?
He can be reached at



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