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The Different Gestures in Different Cultures Essay Sample

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The Different Gestures in Different Cultures Essay Sample

Body language, which of course gesture is a vital part, is important in communication. It may or may not be accompanied by spoken language, and just as language varies from culture to culture so does the language of gestures.

Some cultures use gesture more than others. The Italians for instance would find it a great handicap if they were unable to use their hands when speaking. The Irish, with their tradition of dancing with arms stiffly at their sides, use far less although all cultures do use gesture to some extent. Some naturally suppress their emotions as in China. The web page ‘Non-verbal communication’ puts this down to the influence of Confucian philosophy.

 The most common are hand gestures as the anatomy of the human hand lends itself to a number of easily discerned positions. However the whole body is used, even to the extreme of revealing the buttocks ( mooning).

Just as certain professions use certain jargon so there are gestures allied to certain professions and groups e.g. in the military certain signals are used to pass on information when spoken communication would be dangerous or impossible – as above the noise of an engine or when creeping up on the enemy.

Some gestures are restricted to the head, the nod or shake, the pointing with the chin, eye rolling and so on. Which of these are universal and which are specific? Pointing for instance is universal, but the way it is done can vary. To point with only one finger as in common in Europe is considered offensive in Asia.  In Indonesia the thumb is used to point according to Judy Haynes in her article ‘Communicating with gestures’.

Some gestures have reverse meanings in certain cultures, for example in Sri Lanka a nod is a negative gesture rather than the positive one it is in most other cultures. To beckon someone forward in Pakistan as one would in Britain or the U.S.A. with the palm more of less upright and facing the beckoner would not be understood, even if accompanied by the correct language. One must place the hand palm down and just bend the fingers.

Using the wrong gesture can lead to people feeling insulted, as when the sole of the foot or shoe is revealed in many Asian countries, but also in France. To take off your shoe and hold it up sole towards someone is extremely insulting and liable to provoke violence.

So not to know a country’s gestures can mean that one’s words, however correct, are incomprehensible. To speak Italian without gestures can mean you are taken for a German for instance, however correct your accent.

All peoples use smiles to signal, but one should not judge people from another culture by how or when they smile. In some cultures smiles are reserved for those one is close to only, not more or less universally as in other cultures. The Japanese smile when they are confused or perhaps when really they are quirt angry. In other parts of Asia, and occasionally elsewhere, a smile indicates embarrassment.

An American visitor to Germany who makes a circle with finger and thumb to indicate o.k. is in fact considered to be making an obscene gesture.

Religious feelings can be upset. Buddhists would be shocked if you patted them on the head as they consider this to be where they have their souls.

Governments listing features of their country tend to include such facts as population numbers or economic growth. El Salvador, on its web site, though is sensitive enough to include a list of appropriate or inappropriate gestures to be used. Any traveller would be wise to find out before they travel if their destination has such a list.

For all these reasons it is better to learn a language in situ rather than by listening to tapes or looking at books. Laura Lawless on the French language web page gives lessons on some 45 gestures which she feels are specifically French and must be studied as closely as any vocabulary lists. She also divides these into gestures to be used in general conversation, the informal, the familiar to be used only with those you ‘tutoie’ and the vulgar. This example from just one language helps us to see just how complex the subject is.

Then there is the subject of ‘dead’ gestures i.e. those no longer used, but which are part of a people’s cultural history as for example in China, where in the past one had to learn about the correct way to greet the emperor, a now defunct position, as commented upon by Zhiling and Guanhui when discussing Chinese  non-verbal communication.

As young children learn language at first they chatter to themselves. Gradually they begin to imitate the language of those closest to them, discarding sounds that are not in their mother tongue. At the same time they are acquiring a language of gesture, again taking and discarding gestures to fit in with their immediate world. The language learner who takes on a second tongue has to do the same, discarding the gestures that accompany his home tongue and taking others. But unless he is careful there may be a few hiccups along the way, just as he may use a word inappropriately. Watch films or sit in a café watching the world go by and you will make fewer errors than you might have done.

Victor Borg on the web page ‘You are what you gesture’ reports that when we meet words make up only about 5% of our communication. Tone and other vocal factors such as the speed of language makes up a big segment of 38%, but by far the biggest section, 55% is gesture.  They quote one researcher as saying ‘We speak to hide what’s on our minds.  But gestures cannot lie.’


Borg, V.P. You are what you gesture http://www.victorborg.com/html/gestures.html retrieved 11th December 2007 from Victor Paul Borg ,Writer.

El Salvador http://www.stpaul.gov/sistercities/elsalvadorinfo.html retrieved 11th December 2007

Haynes, J. 1998 – 2004 http://www.everythingesl.net/inservices/body_language.php, retrieved 11th December 2007 from everythingESL.net

Lawless,L. French Gestures http://french.about.com/library/weekly/aa020901a.htm retrieved 11th December 2007 from About.com: French language

Zhiling,M. and Guanhui, L. Non-verbal Communication http://www.ling.gu.se/~biljana/gestures2.html retrieved 11th December 2007


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