You want to show your team you think they did a great job, so during a virtual meeting you give them an enthusiastic “thumbs up” gesture. Whoops. You may have just insulted half of them. Common gestures in one country often mean a completely different thing in another.
In our speaking and presentation skills workshops, we have always encouraged people to be expressive, to let the passion they have for their message shine through. One way to do that is with effective gestures.
We find ourselves emphasizing this point even more now, in this near 100-percent virtual world we’re working in. It takes a bit more effort to have an impact and forge strong connections with people when you’re not sitting in the same room, so expressiveness can help bridge the gap. However, because our teams and business dealings are becoming more and more multicultural, speakers need to be aware that an innocent gesture in one setting could be an insulting one in another.
In this blog post we take a look at some common expressive gestures and how they can take on wildly different meanings, depending on your audience. PowerSpeaking, Inc. Master Facilitators Chris Brannen, Anshu Arora, Payal Gandhi Hoon, and Ralf Wolter recently shared some insights.
Chris Brannen grew up in Japan and earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Japanese language. Her best advice is to be very careful with hand gestures. “In general, it’s best to avoid all gestures that involve fingers when presenting to a multicultural audience,” Chris says. “For example, the thumbs-up sign, which in some countries means ‘all is well,’ or ‘go ahead,’ can be a vulgar gesture in Australia. In Chile, avoid deliberately opening the palm of your hand and spreading your fingers, because this gesture can signal that someone or something is stupid. And do not make the ‘OK’ sign during your presentation. The meaning of this gesture varies across cultures. For example, to the French it means ‘zero’ or ‘worthless’; to the Japanese it is a symbol of money; to Germans and South Americans, it can be a vulgar gesture.”
Anshu Arora and Payal Gandhi Hoon give some examples from an Indian perspective. “The OK gesture and finger pointing are both seen as negative here,” Anshu says. “The former has sexual connotations and the latter is considered authoritative and blaming.” She adds that one postural gesture, standing with your hands clasped behind your back, "connotes the stern parent, one who never buys ice cream for the child!”
Payal says several common gestures and stances in the U.S. and elsewhere definitely take on a different meaning in India. “The thumbs-up sign here means a job well done, unless you purse your lips while you’re doing it, which changes the meaning to ‘no luck’ or ‘no success.’ And the so-called fig-leaf posture, where you stand with your hands crossed in front of your groin, actually has a positive meaning here. It can be a mark of respect in the presence of an elder.”
Ralf Wolter, who lives in Germany, says he likes to show
workshop participants two versions of the gesture known in the U.S. as the “peace” or “victory” sign, one of them where the palm faces out and the other facing in, and then ask, "Which of these two gestures gets me a couple ofGuinness in a UK pub, and which one gets me kicked out?" It seems that in the UK, when done with your palm facing toward you, the two-fingered gesture can mean “up yours.” So, when you want to innocently gesture “peace” or “victory”—or order beer— make sure your
palm is facing outward!
In our Global Presentations™ workshop, we give participants our list of “Top 5 Gestures to Avoid.” You can see it here.
Being aware of what gestures mean in different cultures is just one way to make sure you’re getting your message across in a clear, respectful way. Check out our 2019 blog post “Where in the World Are You Speaking?” for more insights from our global Master Facilitators.
On the journey with you,
The PowerSpeaking, Inc. Team