Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Some Helpful Pointers: Gestures Are All the More Important in Our Shrinking World

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Some Helpful Pointers: Gestures Are All the More Important in Our Shrinking World

Article excerpt

The power of the gesture is extraordinary. Hold up two fingers in most parts of the world and people will think you're celebrating peace or victory, or simply wanting two more beers. Do the same thing (palm inwards) in the UK, Australia or Ireland and you'll be halfway to a fight.

Here at home, the "thumbs-up" is the most benign of signals. Do the same thing in a traffic jam in Sardinia and you may find yourself run off the road. "Sit on this!" is what it signifies there. In Iran it's so rude there's a name for it: the bilakh.

In a world where, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, travel is on the up and up, getting these things right is ever more crucial. As TV images are routinely beamed around the world, the same applies. When President Bush won his second term back in 2004, he made a sign at his supporters known locally as the "hook 'em, Horns". This has the index and little finger outstretched while the two middle fingers are curled back into the palm. For stalwarts of the Texas Longhorns football team, this means "victory". Poor George. He can hardly have known that, in Italy, it implies that a man is a cuckold--while in Norway it's the sign of the devil.

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It's not just the deliberate gestures we have to watch out for as we try to negotiate our ever-shrinking world. Even ordinary movements can cause problems. Fold your arms in front of your chest at home and people will think you're relaxed and at ease; do the same in Finland and you'll be seen as rude and stand-offish. …

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