Frequent travelers must be great at charades, because the need to communicate but not having the luxury of understanding the language which can be such a burden. We depend on our body language and simple gestures which could be universal. A skilled traveler can negotiate a cab driver, buy food in the market, and get directions from a stranger through hand motions. However, things could get lost in translation, when a typical gesture from your country means something different and is considered to be offensive abroad.
Cultural norms are the standards we live by, shared expectations and rules that guide people’s behaviour. Cultural norms are learned and reinforced by parents, friends, teachers and basically everyone we surround ourselves with. Here’s a list of some of the interesting ones that I’ve come across:
- Thumbs-up in Thailand. This is a common gesture that implies ‘good’ or an agreement. However, in Thailand, it is a sign of condemnation. It is typically a child’s gesture, the Thai equivalent of sticking out your tongue.
- Slurping noodles and belching at the dinner table is common in China, whereas it is considered rude in other countries.
- Beckoning in the Philippines. You know how it’s pretty normal to call someone by using your finger: curling your index finger. This gesture is actually frowned upon in many Asian countries. In the Philippines, this gesture is only to be used for dogs.
- Using your fingers to signal ‘OK’ in France. Making a circle with your thumb and forefinger is how we would signal a person to say “great” or “fine”. In France, this means “zero” or “worthless”. Thus, it is probably a bad idea to use this gesture to the chef. He might think the food he cooked for you is bad.
- Shaking your head in Bulgaria. When we shake our head, it usually means “no” or a disapproval, while nodding our head means “yes”. In Bulgaria however, it is the complete opposite. So if you go to Bulgaria, remember to switch it up, or else you might confuse people.
- Use two hands in Japan. When you hand something important, such as business cards and gifts, you are expected to give and receive with both your hands. If you use only one hand, it is seen to be disrespectful and insincere.
- Placing your chopsticks vertically. If you take a break during a meal, do not stick your chopsticks in your rice. In Japanese and Chinese culture, this is a symbol of bad manners and brings bad luck. This rule comes from a Buddhist tradition, as it resembles incense sticks during funerals and death.
- Asking for condiments in Italy. You should not add cheese, ketchup or hot sauce to your pizza. This is very frowned upon there, it is almost blasphemous, one would say. You would offend the waiter and the chef.
- Pointing with your index finger. In most countries, this is considered to be rude. Pointing at people, especially to older generations. This is impolite and rude in China, Japan, Indonesia, Brunei, Latin America, just to name a few.
Some of these gestures may be innocent in some places, but could mean something completely different and offensive elsewhere. Remember to be careful and try to avoid these little signals when you travel abroad, you don’t want to get into trouble! Are there any interesting gesture you have in your country that people should be aware of?