Caught Red-Handed?

Zoë Sharp

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 …

34 thoughts on “Caught Red-Handed?

  1. Sarah W

    Oh, dear. My younger daughter's godfather is Greek, and now I'm wondering how rude I've been to him over the years!

    That's the problem with gestural antisyzygies . . . they're fraught with anxiety.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Ooh, nice use of antisyzgies! And I’m sure if you’d offended your daughter’s godfather too badly, he would have refused to act as godfather. Either that or he would have made you go sleep with the fishes … Ah, hang on, that’s Italian godfathers, isn’t it?

    Hi PK
    I’m all in favour of more Spock-like gestures!

  3. David Corbett

    When my hands are outstretched, palms downward, fingers curled slightly toward the ground — and especially when I'm in the vicinity of my desk …

    it usually means I'm typing.

    I've taken interrogation courses where body language is dissected, and I'm always wary of the absolutitsts, the ones who think every but of movement or every gesture or every physical response has a single, readily decipherable meaning. And yet, sometimes they see things I just don't, and they're really there. not imagined. Other times these would-be savants are indeed jumping to conclusions. People with authority issues can often comes across as guilty even when innocent, just because they give all the signs or irrational hostility and dread. They look like they're hiding something — they are, their unconscious fear and distrust. The best interrogators always think holistically — but I'm sure even they can misinterpret a gesture here or there when it's loaded with cross-culturalal baggage.

    Fun post, Zoé. Now I really do have to get back to that typing thing.

  4. David Corbett

    And while I'm typing I should probably mind my spelling a bit more. Sorry. For some reason the machine is rebelling this morning — I'm working wireless and the screen is jumping about and the characters are very very small …

    But you don't care.

  5. Louise Ure

    Just the post I needed this morning, Zoe. Man, those Greeks take offense at anything!

    My special thanks for that photo of Steve McQueen.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dävîd
    When my hands are outstretched, palms downward, fingers curled slightly towards the ground, it usually means I’m about to fall over ;-]

    Interesting about your interrogation courses – you must tell us more about that sometime! And as a kid I always had a terrible habit of grinning when accused of something I HADN’T done, which doesn’t help you to look less guilty.

    I rather liked the spelling of ‘cross-culturalal’ – makes it sound like carefully prepared meat ;-] – but how on earth do you work on a screen that’s jumping around all over the place?

    Hi Louise
    Hmm, it makes me very wary about the next time we go to Greece, too. And a photo of Steve McQueen is always enough to brighten a day, isn’t it?

  7. Eika

    Then there's what people do with their hands when they're trying not to do anything with their hands.

    Cross your arms and– just in my limited experience in America!– you're either cold, nervous, shy, or aloof; and if you suddenly cross them mid-conversation, it probably means something's a touchy subject. Steepled hands look like you're praying; clasped hands tend to signify nerves (again!) or that the speaker's lying to me. There are probably more.

    And now I have to go and add those sorts of gestures to my work…


  8. Jenni

    Great post! I've had to be aware of cultural differences in body language my whole life. When we lived in Asia we were told never to show the bottoms of our feet, as that is considered really rude in most Asian countries. In the Philippines made the mistake of signalling my sister to come over by pointing out palm up with my index finger and curling the finger back towards me. That is an obscene gesture, at least in Manila.

    When I worked for a criminal defense attorney in Alaska, we frequently used a body language expert to help with jury selection. I found a lot of what he had to say right on target, but not always. It is a fascinating subject.

  9. Alafair Burke

    Oh, what a fun post. Love the ending!

    Actually, to me the Tony Blair sign does not look like "OK." I think of OK as index finger nail-down on the pad of the thumb. He, in contrast, has the thumb and index finger pads pressed together. Pretty sure that's the universal sign for smoking pot 🙂

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Friggin' fascinating post, Zoe baby.
    I think Holland was the only country in your list that interprets every gesture to mean, "Hey, just chill out and take a long toke, ja?"

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alaina
    Crossing your arms, resting your chin on your hands, pointing your feet as you stand, or crossing your legs are all very interesting indicators. Love your list!

    Hi Jenni
    I knew about the bottom of the feet thing, but not the beckoning finger. Wow, it’s so easy to get yourself into deep water in countries where you really wouldn’t want to fall foul of the law, isn’t it?

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Alafair
    “Actually, to me the Tony Blair sign does not look like "OK." I think of OK as index finger nail-down on the pad of the thumb. He, in contrast, has the thumb and index finger pads pressed together. Pretty sure that's the universal sign for smoking pot :-)”

    You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment …

    Although, thinking about it, that would explain an awful lot about the current state of the UK economy!

    Hi Stephen
    Yup, the Dutch do tend to be very laid back. You can just imagine being stopped for speeding and the traffic cop saying that to you: “Hey, just chill out and take a long toke, ja?”

  13. Judy Wirzberger

    Don't worry about offending any Greek men when you are in Greece. They won't be looking at your hands. (Did you see Shirley Valentine? – my favorite movie (or one of, at least).
    And you haven't even covered ASL (American Sign Language) slang. I meant to say hungry once, very hungry. The gesture done once means hungry, done three times — it means horney. Makes for interesting looks. Most fascinating three hours I spent was at a baby shower where I was the only hearing person. Lots of signs.
    Loved the post! Food for thought when writing subtext.

  14. Sylvia

    The eyebrow raise – single or double; the wave of the hand by the head – as in 'whatever' or 'go away'. Then there is the fist in the air – high up in victory (or protest) or with the arm bent as in 'up yours'.

  15. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    This was fun. As David said, it's all so culture bound. That eye-contact thing . . . some cultures see its avoidance as a sign of deception – others, a sign of respect.

    We used to use the four-finger palm-forward sign on patrol to signal a potential back-up that we were okay. I don't know if that was widespread, or even if it was wise.

  16. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Judy
    I hadn't even considered sign language misunderstandings – how fascinating!

    Hi Sylvia
    I forgot to add that the forefinger straight up with the thumb out, when slapped against the forehead, also means 'Loser!' – at least in the UK. We also came up with another one – a finger tapped onto the shoulder (to indicate pips) and then touched to the forehead meant 'major dickhead'. Don't know how widespread that might be, though!

  17. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Haven't come across that use of the four-finger gesture before. I suppose as well as indicating you were OK, it could have meant 'send four men!'

    Hi Alex
    From what I can recall, I think the not showing the bottoms of your feet is more when you're sitting down – if you sit with your feet up, or one leg crossed ankle over knee, you tend to show the bottoms of your feet a lot. I know that when people flap their feet when they're sitting down, legs crossed, it's supposed to be a sign they're nervous.

  18. Judy Wirzberger

    Wow, Reine, Zoeeeee
    What a great way to get four men. I'm going outside to practice right now.

  19. Reine

    Hahahahaha, Judy! Four men – don't think I could handle tht many at once!

    Did I leave out that 4 finger thing was supposed to be short for 10-4? It was also used as a hello between cops, yet again I have no idea if they did that in any other place. apparently lots of confusion with the different codes in different places and multiple uses for same ones. I hear some departments are going for "plain English" now.

  20. Zoe Sharp

    LOL judy -let me know how that works out for you ;-]

    Ah-ha – Reine – 10-4. That makes perfect sense now. Not writing police procedurals (UK or US) I haven't learned the codes. I did learn the phonetic alphabet years ago, though, so I can always spell out place names and addresses over the phone!

    And what's wrong with four men at once? One to cook, one to hoover, one to mow the lawn and one to wash the car – sounds perfectly reasonable to me ;-]

  21. Barbie

    Awww, I'm a million late for this post!!! :/

    I just want to argue that the "more obvious insults" can have a second meaning, too. When my brother was really little, like three or four, he got his finger caught on a door. His middle finger. The thing almost snapped it off. He got bad stitches and a bad scar, so, when it was finally out of bandages, he was showing it to everyone who'd see, but lifting his middle finger only. Now, imagine, a four year old child, "Hey, look," Often misinterpreted. Awfully cute, but embarrassed my mom a lot 🙂

  22. Reine

    Hey Zoë,

    Yeah, but only if you have five fingers on the one hand – plus the opposable thumb . . . you know . . . just so it's clear you're not waving, okay?

  23. Reine

    Oh, Zoë – wait. 10-5 means "relay or repeat message." I don't think that's a good code for your Hoover Hero, or Mow Man, criminy or Companion Cook, Washer Willy, or even your Oven Oojah. I mean we don't want them sharing notes or anything, right? Time for me to clear off . . . .

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie
    I can see how that gesture made perfect sense to your little brother. Did your mum end up in a lot of arguments in the street, though?

    Hi Reine
    Hey, polydactyly isn't SO rare … ;-]

    And as for 'Washer Willy' I'm not even going to go there!

  25. Reine

    Damn Zoë, you are so right. I even have a giant polydactyl Maine Coon Cat right here on my bed trying to push Kendall out. He has the upper paw, me thInks.

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Reine – those Maine Coon cats are just wonderful. A friend acquired one as a kitten who just seems to keep on growing. He's gorgeous, but oh boy he knows it!

    And the saying is that dogs have owners, but cats have staff …

  27. Reine

    Haha! Zoë – yes Buffalo knows this! I got him in Boston for the med students . . . so they would come to my office to talk . . . hah! I still get messages from them when they happen upon my page. The other day, one from a plastic surgeon in Chicago, "Damn! I was always afraid of Buffalo! Is he in charge of Arizona yet?" Here's the link to his photo – 5th pic down from the top – just after She-She who is still negotiating space with him:

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