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The Art of Speaking Body Language and Not Die Trying

Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish

Imagine learning English for many years, tackling false friends successfully, coping with phrasal verbs well, managing to polish your pronunciation, etc., and thinking that you are ready to face native speakers with reasonable fluency. And then you go a pub, lift two fingers and ask the waiter to go f*ck himself while you say “2 pints, please!“. Oh, god! It’s terribly embarrassing to realise it and even worse to try to fix it. So in today’s post, we’re going to see different gestures or bodily actions you must be especially aware of when relating to people from other cultures and nationalities.

Embarrassing misunderstandings due to cultural body language differences. Click To Tweet

1. Beware of the Greek palm 

While showing your palm to some0ne else might mean things like “stop”, “wait”, “five” or “high five” in some countries, be careful with how you do it in Greece, as it is the most traditional gesture of insult among the Greek. This gestures, usually called “mountza“, is done by “extending all fingers of one or both hands and presenting the palm or palms towards the to-be-insulted person in a forward motion” (Wikipedia).

2. Bulgaria: where nods mean “no” and shakes mean “yes”

That’s right, guys. If you’re in Bulgaria, be careful with your nods and shakes, as they are typically interpreted exactly the opposite as they are normally used in other countries: a nod means “no” and a shake means “yes”. Luckily for everyone else, Bulgarians are aware of this particularity, so when speaking to foreigners they tend to translate this particular gesture without noticing. This difference is also found in places like India, Pakistan or Turkey.

3. The silly mistake when ordering two beers

When ordering two of something or simply signalling “two” to someone in the Anglosaxon culture, make sure you show them your palm as well, otherwise, you’ll be telling them to “f*ck off”. Rumour has it this insult originated back when enemies of the British caught British archers and they would cut off their index and middle finger. Nevertheless, it’s a very rude gesture in the UK, in general, so try to avoid it!

4. The German head-pointing finger

It’s pretty common to say that someone is crazy by pointing your index finger at your temple and spinning it. This is usually something we do tongue in cheek. However, if you’re in Germany or Austria, you ought to be careful with how you do it. Otherwise, you might end up calling someone a complete idiot without realising, and this gesture is considered extremely offensive in their culture.

5. Toasting around the world

When toasting, make sure you know where you are (duh!) and where the people around you are from. Apparently, while in many cultures a toast is no toast without bumping glasses, in Hungary it’s not polite to do so, so it would be more like an “air toast”. Also, the English, Scandinavian and French consider it important to look the rest of the toasters in the eye. And the Chinese adjust the height of the glass depending on the age of the people toasting – the older ones at a higher level than the younger – and they finish off the whole glass of drink. But that would be rude in Bulgaria, where it is seen as good manners to leave a little in the class after toasting.

6. Beckoning someone with your index finger

It’s ok, though not particularly polite, to ask someone to “come here” with a slight movement of your index finger. However, if you do this in the Philippines, you will offend someone deeply. This gesture is only used with dogs and, if used with a person, it would imply that you consider them inferior to you.

7. Did you enjoy your meal? Burp! 

In places like Spain, or most European countries for that matter, it’s very impolite to burp. In fact, if you do it, even unintentionally, you’ll probably feel terribly embarrassed. However, it is said that in some Arab countries as well as in Bahrain and certain areas of China it isn’t rude to burp during or after a meal.

8. Giving in Japan

Forget about multitasking in Japan when handing something to someone. In Japan, offering something with both hands is seen as a sign of respect and consideration, meaning that you really mean to give that to the person in question. However, if you do it with only one hand, it seems you don’t really care about this person and/or what you are given to them. So make sure you don’t disrespect anyone in Japan with such a simple gesture!

9. Watch out for Sri Lankan heads!

While patting a child’s head softly is a warm gesture in many Occidental countries, you should never do it in Sri Lanka; not with children, not with adults. Heads are a sacred part of the body in this Buddhist culture, which is barely surprising given the general importance of our heads. So touching someone’s head is seen as an offensive, invasive and disrespectful gesture in this country.

10. Fingers crossed!

In places like Spain or the UK, crossing your fingers or even the verbal expression “fingers crossed!” means “good luck” or wishes for good things to happen. However, if you’re in Vietnam and you cross your fingers at someone, it is regarded as highly offensive.  To Vietnamese people, crossing your fingers is said to resemble female genitalia, hence its inappropriacy.

Have you ever been misunderstood because of your body language? Are there any particularly rude gestures exclusive to your country or culture? Let us know in the comments!

Remember to download uTandem right now (iOS or Android) and practise your favourite language with other awesome native speakers like yourself for free. And make sure you also talk about polite and impolite gestures in your culture! Oh, and don’t forget to review uTandem on the App Store and Google Play! 🙂


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