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Talking Hands and Saving Face

In Mexico, some of our most common hand gestures have totally different meanings, which can create embarassing situations at best.

By Rebecca Burg

It was Ray’s first cruise to Mexico. Personable and outgoing, he enjoyed interaction with the friendly locals. While he was purchasing supplies at a local shop, the hard-working employee impressed him. Unable to speak her language, Ray innocently conveyed his pleasure by giving the employee the American “OK” sign, with the thumb and index finger forming a circle. The non-English speaking woman’s eyebrows shot upward in surprise. With a squeak, she covered her mouth as tears welled up in her eyes. She ran out of the room. Confused, Ray felt terrible.

The well meaning cruiser soon learned that his “OK” gesture is a rude obscenity in Mexico. It is also an insult in some Mediterranean countries and in numerous islands, such as the Spanish Mallorca. 

Despite our shrinking world, active cruisers still experience the often embarrassing misunderstandings that occur in nonverbal interactions with other cultures. 

Though commonplace, unintentional blunders like Ray’s can be avoided with awareness and a sincere effort to understand the other’s cultural differences.

"Many are unaware that blunders can even happen when giving a gift."
Studies have shown over 70 percent of face to face interaction is nonverbal.  The differences in something as simple as a hand gesture or length of eye contact vary greatly from culture to culture. Misunderstandings are often taken personally, especially since our unspoken actions take place on a subconscious level. We’re most likely to interpret a nonverbal blunder as a sign of disrespect more so than an unintentional ignorance of cultural differences. 

There is a reason for the “ugly American” stereotype.  By at least making an effort to respect and understand another locale’s unique nonverbal nuances, you need not be included in that undesirable image. People are thrilled when you care enough to extend an effort to understand their unique culture. As a traveling cruiser, the positive impressions you make on a host’s shore assure a warm welcome the next time around.

The major components of nonverbal communication include gestures, facial expression, eye contact, posture, tone of voice, personal adornment, and gift giving. Many are unaware that blunders can even happen when giving a gift. For example, giving the gift of a clock to a traditional Chinese individual is not a positive thing to do. The clock symbolizes death. 

Cruising in Cuba can also be an interesting cultural challenge for the inadvertent sailor.

Many never think of clothing and personal adornment as a form of communication.  An American visitor to Cuba had learned an unusual lesson about decorative adornment. She had purchased an attractive beaded chain at a small local shop.  As she walked through the streets wearing her new souvenir, she became aware of people pointing and giggling at her. Thoroughly puzzled, she later learned that the beaded chain was not a necklace. Its purpose was to secure underwear.

Facial gestures are a significant part of our interaction with others. The smile is one of the most universal and understood signals and when genuine, makes one appear more likeable and attractive to others. Eye contact can make or break our relations with others, depending on their unique cultural upbringing. Americans are comfortable with about 60 percent to 70 percent eye contact during normal conversation. Other locales, such as the Orient, people are at ease with far less eye contact when speaking to another. 

In Singapore, Japan, or Korea, intense and lengthy eye contact is interpreted as aggression or disrespect. In Cuba and Australia, people prefer that you do maintain firm eye contact. An Asian individual may signal intense concentration to what you are saying by closing the eyes and nodding the head. American visitors may misinterpret this as sleepy disinterest. A Korean’s respectful practice of averting the eyes during conversation has often been misread as dishonesty by Americans during important business transactions.

If you're sailing in Asian waters and a local closes his eyes and nodds at you that is a display of intense concentration rather than sleepy disinterest.
Where one’s gaze rests while communicating to another is a little thought about, but important factor in positive relations. In most cultures, gazing at length on an area below another’s eyes and above the knees produces discomfort. This is so instinctive that an individual will usually not be able to explain why he or she is uneasy when gazed at in this way.

Head movements are another involuntary nonverbal display. For example, good listeners will slightly nod or tilt their heads to the speaker.  Encouraged, the speaker interprets this as sincere interest. Yet even the familiar head nod has completely different meanings in some cultures. A Bulgarian will nonverbally signal “no” by nodding his head and say “yes” by shaking his head side to side. The brows are also an important form of communication. For example, Americans signal doubt or surprise by raising the brows. In the Polynesian islands, however, the same raised brows signify positive agreement.

Hand gestures often create confusion between cultures. Despite our smaller world, subtle misunderstandings in this area are difficult not to take as personal affront.  Cruisers often learn the hard way about the differences in something as little thought of as using the left and right hands for certain tasks. In the Middle East, Africa, and most of south East Asia, the left hand is considered unclean. One is to never eat with or touch another person with the left hand. Exchanges from person to person are done with the right hand.

"The seemingly innocent thumbs-up gesture is offensive in Australia. The thumbs-down gesture is extremely rude to the locals of the Mexican islands."
The practice of shaking hands has spread throughout our small world. Still, there are differences. In Tahiti, be sure to shake the hands of all people in your presence or it will be considered impolite. Our hands subconsciously speak volumes and have easily gotten visitors to new locales into trouble.

The seemingly innocent thumbs-up gesture is offensive in Australia. The thumbs-down gesture is extremely rude to the locals of the Mexican islands. A hand wave, when done using the entire hand with palm facing out, is considered a serious insult in Greece. This same wave innocently means “no” in Europe.  A Russian will signal “no” by making a fist with the thumb protruding between the index and middle finger.  He is not playing the western kid’s hand game of look-I-got-your-nose!

Gesturing hands aren’t the only culprits in cross-cultural communication breakdowns. The feet and legs also convey messages to others. A visitor to Cairo had unintentionally embarrassed himself and insulted a room full of Moslems when he crossed his legs while seated. To some cultures, showing the bottom of one’s foot is grossly impolite.

The use of personal space is also an important form of nonverbal communication.  For example, a Latin American will stand very close to the person he is speaking to. An American tends to maintain a larger zone of space in between himself and another while conversing. This difference often results in the familiar dance where the American automatically steps backward to regain his space while the Latin American steps forward to reestablish his normal social zone. The two end up frustrated and less trusting of each other. 

Is waving safe? Do you mean "hi," "bye,""go way"? Just make sure to smile and that will go along way to show at least that your gesture is a friendly one!
In areas such as Brazil or Cuba, strangers will stand very close to you during casual social interaction. Touching is frequent and both men and women may casually kiss you on each cheek. Americans sometimes misinterpret this intimate social style as sexual interest or flirting. The embarrassing misunderstandings that result are difficult to pinpoint and correct since our actions and reactions occur on a subconscious level. 

Attention to our own and to other’s unspoken forms of communication can help us to create positive relations with the cultures we visit.  Making positive impressions and avoiding bad ones help assure that we are welcome next time around.  A well-mannered traveling cruiser can avoid the boorish image of the “ugly American.”  Sensitivity to the uniqueness of other cultural backgrounds and to the way people communicate is invaluable as we interact in our small but diverse world. The most valuable result of our efforts to be open and understanding are the warm and lasting friendships made between two unique human beings.

About the author: Rebecca cruises and lives on board her Bayfield29, currently anchored in the Florida Keys.

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