Body talk

Sometimes what our gestures say is not what we mean. International business traveler Roger Axtell tells Salon's Dawn MacKeen that he has learned this truth the hard way.

By Dawn MacKeen

Published November 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

At first, when Roger E. Axtell began watching how people in other countries moved their hands, bodies and lips, he did it for self-protection. He didn't want to offend anyone by unknowingly moving his hand the wrong way or -- heaven forbid -- telling the wrong joke. Now, after 30 years of international business travel, what Axtell has found is that humor, body language, customs and gestures -- what he calls style -- are just as important to the success of a business deal as the actual terms themselves. The wrong move, whether a seemingly innocuous thumb's-up gesture or a two-finger peace sign, can blow it all.

Axtell's initial observations, scribbled down on pieces of paper, have grown into nine books on what to do and what not to do when conducting business on foreign soil. Salon spoke with Axtell about his new book, "Do's and Taboos of Humor Around the World," and asked him about those innocent gestures we make all the time -- and just what they mean in other cultures.

What are some survival jokes or gestures -- the basics that an international traveler can get by with overseas?

The basic survival gesture is the one that is absolutely universal and rarely misunderstood -- the smile. But even though it is so ubiquitous, there are some little nuances across the globe: The Russians are known for not smiling on the streets; the French accuse Americans of smiling too much; the Japanese do not smile under formal circumstances, like if they have their picture taken for their driver's license or a Christmas photo; in Malaysia and Indonesia, they smile or even giggle when they are embarrassed or when they're nervous. A friend of mine had a Malaysian housekeeper and he got word that his mother back in the States had passed away. When the maid heard this, she smiled, almost giggled. A week later, he got the double tragic news that his father had died. She actually laughed out loud. When he asked her about it, he learned that Malaysians do this to cover terrible embarrassment.

What gestures have the most meaning from country to country?

The OK gesture is the single best-known gesture in the United States -- with a 98 percent recognition rate -- according to a survey from the Bradley Game Company. But in other cultures it means something entirely different -- like in the south of France, where it means zero or worthless. I took a hotel room one time and the concierge said to me, "How's your room, Monsieur?" I gave him the OK sign -- but what I was saying was that it was worthless. In Japan, the same gesture is a symbol for a coin or money. So you could theoretically have a discussion with a Japanese businessman and say, "OK, let's sign the contract." And he could think to himself, "Oh my goodness, he's making the sign for money. Does he want some money under the table?" The most notable cases of misunderstanding concerning the OK sign are Brazil, Germany and Russia -- where it refers to the anus or the vagina.

Are there any blunders that stick out in your mind?

When Richard Nixon visited Brazil in the 1950s, he got off the airplane and did two OK signs, which is very offensive. In 1991, when George Bush visited Australia, he did the V for victory sign in the window of his limo -- but unfortunately, his hand was the wrong way around. In all the British Commonwealth countries, this is the bird, it means "up yours." So there were pictures of him flipping the bird in all the newspapers.

One time, Boris Yeltsin was sitting next to Barbara Bush at a White House dinner and he turned to his translator and asked, "What does it mean in the United States when a woman puts her foot on a man's foot?" He said that in Russia, it means she's romantically attracted to the man. The translator said, "Why?" and he said that Mrs. Bush had her foot on top of his right then. It turns out she didn't realize it, but he thought that was an occasion for a good joke, so he wrote an inscription on his menu and gave it to Mrs. Bush: "You stepped on my foot, you knew what it meant, and I felt the same way."

Is there a way to play it safe? For example, should you avoid using your hands -- or feet -- altogether?

First of all, do your homework before going to any country. There is no reason why you can't collect material ahead of time, study up on a particular culture -- not just the demographics, history, economics and politics, but the behavior, customs, protocol, etiquette, gestures, body language and humor.

If you don't know, ask people, and become more aware of circumstances around you and what people are doing -- like how do they call a waiter, how do they wave goodbye, watch their posture and their body language or a gesture that they use, tapping the side of their nose, or flipping the lobe of their ear. Nowadays, there is just no excuse for not being prepared.

It's amazing, if you name any gesture, you can almost always find a country where it's not done. In Bulgaria, particularly among the older generation, when you nod your head up and down, you're saying no. When you shake your head back and forth, you're saying yes. This is true even with some of the most basic gestures -- the thumb's-up gesture is rude in Australia and Nigeria, for example. In Germany, chewing gum in public is considered behaving like a cow. In Italy, making Satan's horns -- with your fist held up shoulder high and your index and little finger extended -- means that your spouse is having an affair behind your back.

Has the wrong gesture or joke ever led to violence?

Yes, a riot occurred in Bangladesh because of a gesture. It was the thumb's-up gesture, which means in Bangladesh just what it means in Australia and Nigeria: Up yours. The opponents of the man who made the gesture were incensed and started a scuffle which broke into a riot on the floor of the Parliament.

What is a sure-fire way to offend someone in another culture?

Of course, one of the best-known gestures is the upraised middle finger, our famous expressway digit. That goes back more than 2,000 years, to the days of the Emperor Caligula in Rome. He would demean his subordinates by making them come forward and kiss that finger, which was of course a phallic symbol; it was metaphorically making them kiss his penis. This gesture is universally offensive -- although they do it differently in the Middle East: You extend your hand out, spread your fingers and drop the middle finger.

In Greece, if someone simply holds their hand out with their palm, as if to say stop, that's a very rude gesture; it's called a moutza and it goes back to ancient times when the Greeks and the Romans were opponents. When the Greeks would capture the Romans, they would pick up mud or fecal matter and rub it in the faces of the prisoners.

In all your travels, what gesture has surprised you the most?

As I was walking down the street in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, with a customer who represented millions of dollars worth of business, he reached over and grasped my hand and continued walking down the street, hand-in-hand. I thought, "My God, there's some type of cross-culture communication going on here," but I didn't know what it was. I started to sweat. I was lucky, I was so stunned that I didn't let go. In his country, that was a sign of friendship and respect; he was paying me a real compliment by saying I was his friend and it was nothing more than that. If I had pulled away, I'm sure I would have offended him.

The problem is when he comes to my little town in Wisconsin and we walk down the street, I'm always so worried that he's going to show me this gesture.

If it's not grabbing your hand, what are some different ways of picking up someone?

There are six different ways around the world for saying, "Oh I see a pretty girl": In this country, we kind of raise our eyebrows up and down, like Groucho Marx; in Greece, they will stroke their cheeks; in the Middle East, they will stroke an imaginary beard on their chin; in Italy they will take an extended index finger and poke it into their cheek and twist it, as if creating a dimple; in France, they kiss their fingers; and in Brazil, when they see a pretty girl, they take both hands and shape them into a telescope and then look through it.

And how do you beckon someone?

When we want to call a waiter, we put our hand up with just one finger. Well, in Japan you would never point with one finger, but if you do, you point with a closed fist and a thumb. All over Europe, if you want to beckon someone, you put your hand up and outward, more horizontally and you make a scratching notion with your fingers, from straight on to down. If we get really impatient, we'll stick the index finger up and curl it toward us, up and down, but that's terribly rude in places like Australia, Indonesia and Mexico, where it's done only for animals and ladies of the night.

In other cultures, have they started to study our gestures?

In Japan, there are now books on how to do business with us and they're telling them about our crazy habits. We call each other by the first name, we shake hands instead of bowing, eye contact is very important, all of these things are quite unique to the Japanese. They don't jump to first names, they don't have direct eye contact and they bow instead of shaking hands.

Is there any other advice that you would give to travelers doing business in foreign countries?

In international business, the personal relationship is very important. In this country, we are taught that time is money. We go in and say, "How do you do?" and waste little time on pleasantries; we are taught that it's an attribute to act this way. The biggest knock that our counterparts overseas have against Americans is that we're too impatient. They want us to sit back and take it easy as they get to know us; they want to build up a feeling of trust. To them, business is not done between businesses, it's done between people.

Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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