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How to avoid insulting foreign audiences with your body language

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If you are ever given the opportunity to speak overseas, I'd recommend that you do some online research before you go about local body language, as there are significant differences between cultures and countries, and what is inoffensive in one place can be tantamount to a challenge to a duel in another!

Here's a few examples to illustrate the point.

1. V for Victory

The gesture of extending the middle finger to mean 'up yours' is pretty universal (the Romans even had a term for it, the 'digitus impudicus'). But did you know that in the United Kingdom, Ireland and countries with strong British ties such as New Zealand and Australia, a similar gesture is to extend the first and second fingers, similar to a Churchillian 'V for Victory' salute. But . . . and this is the important bit . . . with the back of the hand facing the other person. If the palm faces them, it's Churchillian; if the back of the hand does, it's 'f#@k you!'

It originated from the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the fourteenth century, when the longbow was the English ‘secret weapon’ and the French would cut off the first two fingers of any archer they captured. At the beginning of battles, the English archers would display these two fingers at the French as if to say, “Here they are, come and get them.”

Ever since it has been an British gesture of defiance. During the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill obviously couldn’t use this to signify ‘Victory’, so he reversed the hand and always showed it palm outwards, as in the photo. So this is the way most of the world now displays a victory sign. Then in the 1960s it was adopted byt the hippy culture to denote 'peace'.

President George Bush Snr, caused an uproar in 1992 as he drove in his limousine past farmers demonstrating against US farm subsidies in Canberra, Australia. Thinking he was giving a peace sign, he gestured with his palm inwards, effectively telling his opponents to ‘f#@k off’ and they were so incensed they responded in kind. After being told about his faux pas, the President had to offer an official apology. Ironically, this all happened just after he had told reporters he was an expert on body language!

(NB: not that it's insulting, but in Vietnam the V sign means 'hello', since the Vietnamese word for the number 2 sounds like the English pronunciation of the word 'hi')

2. Thumbs Up

You might think you couldn't go far wrong with a simple 'thumbs up' . . . but you'd be wrong. Whilst virtually all cultures would recognize John McCain’s gesture as a sign for ‘good’ or ‘A-OK’, there are alternative interpretations. When jerked upwards in Australia or the Middle East, it's the equivalent of the English V-sign or the American middle finger, roughly translated as ‘sit on this!’ When thrust forward in Greece it means roughly the same thing.

(NB: not that it's insulting, but in Japan a 'thumbs up' represents the number 5)


3. A-OK

When President Trump forms a circle with his thumb and forefinger, Americans and northern  Europeans would recognize that as signifying ‘OK’. However, in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey, and also Russia and Brazil, it is an extremely offensive gesture representing the male anus that accuses the recipient of being gay.

So in Greece if a waiter asked you if everything was OK with your meal and you gave him a thumbs up, followed by an A-OK sign, you
would effectively be saying, “Sit on this, you faggot!”

In countries such as France and Belgium it signifies zero or worthless. So If a French speaker asked you what you thought of his speech and you used this to say it was fine, he would read it as an insult.

In the 1950s, Richard Nixon visited Brazil at a time when there was widespread hostility there to the US, and added fuel to the fire with a single innocent act. What did he do? He stepped off the plane and flashed the 'A-OK' sign to the waiting crowd, effectively telling the whole nation to go screw themselves, who responded (reasonably enough in the circumstances) by booing. The next day a photograph of the gesture was plastered all over the newspapers.

(NB: not that it's insulting, but in Japan this sign means 'money'. If a customer in a shop makes it to the shopkeeper, he's saying, 'give me my change in coins')

4. Il Cornuto

When the extended first and little fingers are raised by Texans, it represents the sign of the Texas University American football team, the Texas Longhorns. Non-Texans often use it to signify 'rock on', and many Americans even use it as a variant of the Churchill 'V for Victory sign. When the thumb is also extended, it's the official symbol meaning 'I love you' in American Sign Language; see Sarah Palin (left).

But . . . the same sign is known to Italians as il cornuto and represents a cuckold’s horns, and indicates someone's wife or girlfriend is being unfaithful to him, and is almost the worst possible insult you can give to a man. A vicious brawl once started in an Italian nightclub when some Texan GIs innocently celebrated their roots by making the Longhorns sign and locals and waiters misunderstood, reacting with violence.

And in 1985, five Americans were arrested in Rome for jubilantly dancing and using this gesture outside the Vatican following the news of a major Longhorns (seems the Pope isn't a Longhorns fan!).

(NB: In Brazil it means 'good luck')

5. The Moutza

Nancy Pelosi's 'Palm Front' gesture mirrors the classic ‘stop’ sign; one or both palms face forward as if to push something away or prevent it from coming any closer to the speaker. Presenters tend to use it to signify two things. The first is an admission of something, as in “I hold my hand up to that”. The second is rejection and determination as in ‘enough is enough’ or ‘let me stop you right there’.

But . . . in Greece it's known as the moutza and has a different meaning completely. Its roots go back to ancient history when fecal matter was shoved or thrown in the faces of prisoners of war, and it survives today as a vicious insult. So if you were taking a Q&A session with a Greek audience and you held up your hand to say, 'let me just stop you there . . . ' you would effectively be saying, 'I shove *#@* in your face!'

(NB: In West Africa the same gesture means, 'You could have one of five fathers!' and is the same as calling someone a bastard)



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