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hand gestures

Hand Gestures: What Do You Mean?

I once attended an international gathering where one of my international friends used a common American hand gesture to describe how close his son was to another child. He said, “they are like this,” then linked his two pinky fingers to show they were close friends.

Three Chinese friends were visiting the group, two of whom were new to living in the U.S. I automatically teased my friend for using an American sign and asked the girls if they understood what he meant. (They didn’t.) So I took a minute to explain what the hand gesture meant, and we continued our conversation.

Afterward, I reflected on the cultural uniqueness of hand gestures. We all have them, don’t we? Sometimes a sign is acceptable in one culture but obscene in another. A few even seem self explanatory or universal. (For instance, I think most cultures understand that if a child is crossing his or her legs and wiggling in a funny manner while standing, the child probably needs to pee!)

In most cases when we use a hand gesture, we assume that those around us know what the gesture means. However, what if they don’t understand? Who’s responsibility is it to make sure the message is communicated clearly? People answer that question differently too, depending on their culture. Some people believe that clear communication is dependent on the speaker (like in the U.S.) and some believe that the responsibility lies with the listener (like in many Asian countries). Good, clear communication is a difficult thing!

Whatever your culture, I hope the next time you use a hand gesture to express yourself that you’ll stop and make sure your message is clear. Hand gestures really are an amazing, and sometimes confusing, communication tool!

Photo by Leonie Nowak