Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sticking a tongue out, the limp handshake, hand signs and other gestures

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

I devoted half a lesson to "gestures" in my Oral English class last term. The lesson segment mainly consisted of a class brainstorm of all the gestures students could think of. I asked them to explain the meaning of each gesture, and I confirmed whether Westerners give it the same meaning or not. Most gestures they thought of were fairly universal.

When they were starting to run out of ideas, I nodded my head vigorously, and asked what that meant. They all said, "Yes." I told them that in most parts of the world, that is the correct answer, but not in Bulgaria. When Bulgarians nod their head, they mean "no", and when they shake their head, they mean "yes". I asked the students to imagine the miscommunication that could occur between a foreigner and a Bulgarian who were not aware of the different meaning.

I then pointed out some gestures that Chinese often make, which foreigners may perceive as having a different meaning than the Chinese intend: (1) limp handshakes, (2) slightly sticking out the tongue, and (3) the Chinese signs for the numbers 6, 8, and 10. Holding hands with someone of the same sex should probably be added to this list, as well as hailing a cab; I hadn't thought of either of these at the time. Can anyone else on the list think of more gestures that should be discussed?

Here is how I explained the three gestures in my lesson:

(1) I demonstrated an especially limp handshake, then showed my wobbly hand to the class, "Doesn't it look like a fish that came out of the water and died? When you shake hands, don't give the person a dead fish. They don't want it. They will think it shows disrespect. The stronger your hand, the more a Westerner will think you are friendly and honest." Then I had each person shake hands with a partner as I went around the room doing random handshake firmness checks.

(2) I told a story in which I was supposed to go to my husband's office to bring him a paper with urgent information on it that he had left at home. I rode a bus, I took the subway, I walked to the office building, and when I saw my husband, I reached for my bag to hand him the paper,...and I realized I had forgotten my bag and the paper! I flicked my tongue out, then asked the students, "What is the meaning of that gesture?" They all recognized it as embarrassment. But then I told them that was the first time in my whole life I had made that gesture. I have only seen it in China; it doesn't exist in the West. The only gestures Westerners make with their tongue all show disrespect. So a Westerner might perceive the Chinese tongue gesture as disrespect, rather than embarrassment. If Westerners were extremely ashamed, they might lower their head or cover their eyes. But mild embarrassment is usually just laughed about.

(3) I demonstrated the numbers 1-5 by holding up the right number of fingers, then asked the students how to show me how to do "6". They all made the gesture of index, middle, and ring fingers folded down, with thumb and pinky extended. I showed them that Westerners show "6" by holding up all 5 fingers of one hand, and one finger (or the thumb) of the other hand. The Chinese gesture for "6" means "telephone" to most Westerners. I then held my hand in that form near my head, with thumb by my ear and pinky by my mouth. The students thought that was really funny. Also, the index finger and thumb extended in an L shape means "8" to Chinese and "gun" to Westerners. And crossing index and middle fingers means "10" to Chinese and "good luck" to Westerners.

To sum up the lecture, I divided students into groups to create conversations using at least 5 of the gestures mentioned in class-- with the meanings that Westerners attach to those gestures, should there be a difference.

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