Your innocent hand gesture could be regarded as an obscene insult

François Caradec’s 'Dictionary of Gestures' will help you avoid awkward situations when interacting with people of other cultures

27 January 2019 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel
President Jacob Zuma. File photo.
President Jacob Zuma. File photo.
Image: Sunday Times

If you thought the cultural relativism of etiquette was a minefield of misunderstanding, spare a thought for the lowly hand gesture. One man’s erotic invitation may signal another’s a mortal insult — and best you know the difference between the two.

That’s where François Caradec’s Dictionary of Gestures comes in, ahem, handy. Aside from the idiosyncratic hand signs of people in the public eye — from Zuma’s use of the middle finger to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose while giving a speech (a veritable “up yours” to whoever’s listening), to Tony Blair’s right hand slicing decisively downward (perhaps indicating what he’s like in the sack) — there is a whole world out there of ways in which we can communicate using just our mitts.

Hardly anyone would disagree that holding your middle finger up with the other fingers clenched in ward in a fist results in the most glorious release of anger and frustration should someone cut you off in traffic.

What Americans understand as the 'A-OK gesture' — a circle made with the thumb and forefinger — is an obscene insult in the Arab world

This simple move can convey a message far more satisfactorily than words. But what Americans understand as the“A-OK gesture” — a circle made with the thumb and forefinger — is an obscene insult in the Arab world. In parts of Europe, it could mean that the person to whom you’re making the gesture is a big fat zero. And in Japan the signal connotes money.

French writer Georges Polti contends that there are eight million possible poses for the hand, taking into account the various positions of each knuckle.

According to Caradec ’s new book, most of them are used to imply something sexual or rude, or both.

The Dictionary of Gestures presents more than 850 gestures and movements, still in use today or totally defunct. It lists the gestural language of monks who needed to communicate with their bodies, having taken a vow of silence, and explains the mudras (ritual gestures in Hinduism and Buddhism).

He tells the history of the sign of the cross — first used by St Cyprian the Magician as a spell to banish the demons to which he had allied himself. For Bedouins, closing the eyes and drawing the fingertips together portends a good journey, but in Italy a similar hand gesture indicates unspeakable frustration, especially when combined with the rapid up and down movement of the wrists and a pulling together of the lips.

If you hold your thumb up like a hitchhiker and hold it behind your head you could be inviting homosexual advances in Russia and some parts of the Middle East. Crossed fingers sometimes signify luck; clenched fists mean defiance or solidarity; a high-five clap is usually two people self-congratulating ... there are many ways we signify our thoughts.

So if you can’t get your hands on Caradec ’s book to help you understand the various cultural hand gestures, seriously consider sitting on them instead.

'Dictionary of Gestures' by François Caradecis available at Exclusive Books for R518.