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Body Language: Give Me Five

Humans, in general, assimilate more information through their eyes than their ears. The ability to understand non-verbal messages is an important skill for us all, but vital in certain professions: diplomats, lawyers, physicians, and of course – global travelers. Since over 50 percent of our communication is based on body language, it behooves us all to realize that there are no ubiquitous gestures around the world: not a smile, not a wink, not even a wave.

Of all the publicly-visible appendages, our hands command the most attention. Your hands greet your clients, touch your loved ones, and can easily send the wrong message. For example:

An attorney was dramatically describing the large size of a murder weapon to a jury, and to emphasize the length of the killing tool he slowly moved his hands apart, with two fingers extended on each hand. Unfortunately, his demonstration missed the mark with the Hispanic members of the jury, who starting shifting uncomfortably and tittering. Evidently, in much of Latin America there is only one thing measured with that gesture.

A wave is not always innocuous either. Hold your hand out, with the palm away from you, and separate the fingers a little bit. You now have the potential to acknowledge a friend, wave goodbye, or imply that an African colleague has five fathers.

A variation on the wave can be highly insulting in Greece too. If you forcefully shove an open hand with the fingers spread widely apart towards another person, you are giving him a “Moutza!” A double Moutza (with two hands smacking one behind the other), is even worse. Ostensibly, the direction of your palm can be the difference between a fight and ordering five frescas.

Even with all their protocol officers, US Presidents have inadvertently insulted foreign dignitaries as well. Many have cheerily waved from Air Force One, and then given everyone a hearty “A-OK” (obscene in Brazil) or the “thumbs-up” sign (which is crude in the Middle East).

Clearly, not all gestures are rude. A “wai” (given in Thailand) is a prayer-like greeting, almost equivalent to a “namaste.” In a wai, both hands are held together, and brought up towards the forehead. It is a gracious way to acknowledge the god-like within others.

Here are a few more “handy” tips on global gestures:  

• Avoid the Left Hand – The left hand is considered unclean in many parts of the world. Do not eat, pour drinks, pass food, hand out business cards, or touch basically anything with your left hand.

• Careful with Come Here – A curving index finger is only used to call animals in many countries. Instead, people often use a downward scooping motion in much of the Mediterranean and Africa. (US citizens sometimes confuse this with “Go Away!”)

• Nix The Pointer – Avoid the extended index finger. It’s rude in almost every culture. Gesture with your entire hand (with the fingers together) to indicate something, or in England, use your chin.

• Try the Snap – Different from the US “oh, snap!” gesture, this is a Spanish downward fling of the hand, where two fingers and the thumb somehow generate an amazingly loud sound. Used for emphasis, it is impressive, and hard to imitate.

• No Hands in your Lap – Polite in the US when dining. Exceedingly disturbing to French and Germans. What are you doing with your hands? Rest your wrists on the edge of the table.

While there are many more cultural no-nos to share, we’ll close here with a show of hands from anyone who has never made a gesture gaffe. Congratulations to those who have escaped unscathed; and for all those who haven’t – high-five!  

Terri Morrison is a speaker and co-author of nine books, including Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries, and her new book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Sales & Marketing. She is president of Getting Through Customs, developers of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Digital – available through McGraw-Hill. TerriMorrison@kissboworshakehands Twitter @KissBowAuthor. Tel (610) 725-1040.

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