Everyone who knows me will be well aware by now that I’m very good at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Why do you think my Murderati blog tag line is ‘Changing Feet’? It’s because, often, the only time I open mouth is to do so.
But I’ve been doing some research recently about body language, which is a fascinating subject for anyone, but absolute gold for writers. In any scene with dialogue backwards and forwards between two characters, it’s invaluable to subtly get across an underlying message by how the characters stand, look, or what they do with their hands.
I’ve just been finishing off writing a short story at the moment. It’s set in a country where people tend to be more expressive than us stiff-upper-lip Brits – where they talk with their hands. In fact, at one point I’ve written the line:
‘Put handcuffs on half the guys in this part of the world and they’d be struck instantly mute.’
Our hands are often the most expressive part of us when we talk, and they give away more than we realise. Not only that, but they can get us into serious trouble of the kind Thing from The Addams’ Family could only dream about.
For instance, back in May this year, a prominent British surgeon was arrested in Dubai on a charge of ‘public indecency’ for what he describes as little more than a shrug at another driver who had been flashing his lights at him in traffic.
According the report in the Belfast Telegraph, the doctor said: “I raised both my hands to say, ‘What do you want?’ but he pulled back [to read the number plate] and then took off and turned right. He alleges I stuck a finger at him but I raised both hands. I am sure he must have seen them at an angle, and that was offensive to him.” The doctor could face a long wait for a trial, and then a prison sentence as a result.
Many gestures seen as perfectly innocuous in some countries, are highly offensive in others. When then-President George W Bush wanted to show his support for the Texas Longhorn football team, for example, he made this gesture:
Of course, Mr Bush was probably unaware that although in the States this gesture made with an open thumb means ‘I love you!’ With the thumb curled in over the middle fingers, as shown, it is not only the sign of the Longhorns, but when rotated, in South America, it signifies ‘protection against bad luck’, and when pointed, in Malta and Italy, ‘protection against the evil eye’.
But made straight up like that, in Mediterranean countries, it means ‘your wife is being unfaithful’. Not the kind of statement you want to make unwittingly in public.
Another common hand gesture is the OK circle formed between forefinger and thumb:
In Europe and the States, this does indeed mean ‘everything is A-OK’. In Japan, it means ‘money or coins’. But in the Med, Russia, Brazil and Turkey, however, it indicates, ahem, ‘an orifice’, ‘sexual insult’, or implies ‘you are a gay man’.
One of the most famous gestures is the V sign. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used this extensively during the Second World War, both with palm facing his audience …
… and with the palm away from the audience:
With the palm facing, it is the classic ‘V for Victory’ meaning a battle won. It also means ‘two’ in Europe, and apparently ‘go to hell!’ in Greece.
Of course, Churchill also used the two-fingered salute the other way around, which was much more of an ‘up yours!’ gesture to the enemy. This also means ‘two’ in the States, as well as ‘peace’ in France.
Steve McQueen famously also used the ‘up yours’ version of the victory sign after his race at Le Mans in 1971:
Nobody’s quite sure why he did this, but the origin of the gesture comes from the battles of Crecy and Agincourt during the Hundred Years War between England and France. The English employed Welsh archers – longbow men – who routed the enemy so effectively that if any were captured the French often cut off the archer’s first two fingers to prevent them being able to draw back a bowstring. If the archers came across any French on the battlefield, therefore, they would waggle those two fingers to show they still had them firmly attached. Maybe Steve was sticking it to the French?
Even a simple thumbs up can be fraught with difficulty:
The widespread meaning is ‘good’, ‘OK’ or to indicate you’re hitchhiking. In Europe, it also means ‘one’, and in Japan ‘man’ or ‘five’. In Greece, however, if thrust forwards it means ‘up yours!’ and with an upward jerk in Australia, ‘sit on this!’
Whereas this gesture …
… simply means ‘the good news is the surgeon managed to sew both hands back on after my industrial accident’ but ‘the bad news is, he didn’t quite get things back where they should be’.
Anyone who remembers the Mike Myers character of Doctor Evil, will be familiar with this gesture:
With the thumb out (OK, so not necessarily with the finger to the mouth like this) the gesture means ‘hang loose’ in Hawaii, or ‘do you want a drink?’ in Holland. However, when the thumb is curled in, more like this …
… then the gesture becomes more complicated. In South America it simply means ‘thin’, in Bali it means ‘bad’, but the Mediterranean it indicates ‘small penis’. It can also show a deep-seated insecurity on the part of the gesturer.
The pointed forefinger, like this …
… means ‘two’ in Europe, but only ‘one’ in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In the States, it tends to be used to summon a waiter, but don’t try that in Japan, where the gesture is considered an insult.
The Japanese can be easily offended by your hands, as this is another insulting gesture …
… but in Western countries it is merely the indicator for ‘four’.
Some gestures can have universal overtones. This one is recognised as meaning ‘stop!’ just about everywhere …
… but it also means ‘five’ in western countries, and ‘go to hell!’ in Greece and Turkey.
Double open palms is also a contradictory one …
It means ‘ten’ and ‘I surrender’ in the west, as well as attempting to convince the audience that the speaker speaks the truth. In Greece, however, it means ‘up yours – twice!’
People use hand gestures all the time when they speak in public to try and convey sincerity, authority, or benevolence.
The late Saddam Hussein, when he was still in power, would often make open-handed gestures which are usually used to imply an open, honest approach:
An experiment was tried using a group who had to list their responses to various speakers. It was found the people who pointed the finger while they spoke were considered ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘belligerent’ …
… whereas those who squeezed a forefinger and thumb together were seen as ‘thoughtful’, ‘goal-orientated’, and ‘focused’:
And, as a generalisation, those who put a hand or finger over their mouth when they speak are reverting to the childhood habit of trying to prevent themselves being untruthful.
I make no judgements here, by the way. I simply trawled the internet looking for examples of the various hand gestures I wanted to illustrate. What – and who – came up was entirely the luck of the draw.
So, I leave you with a final gesture, one that is truly universal in every sense of the word:
Live long and prosper!
So, ‘Rati, do you have any other misinterpreted gestures for me? (I’ve left out the more obvious insults, as these don’t tend to have a secondary meaning!)
Next week, incidentally, I’ll be at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, part of the Harrogate International Festival. Looking forward to seeing some of you there.
This week’s Word of the Week is antisyzygy, meaning a union of opposites. It’s also a really good score in Scrabble …