Gestures – The DO’s And TABOOs Of Body Language Around The World Essay, Research Paper

Axtell, Roger E. Gestures: The DO?s and

TABOOS of Body Language Around the World. Jon Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1998

– Rev. and expanded edition.

Over the past decade the author has been

presenting seminars, speeches and workshops around the United States on

the subject of international behavior. This book is the result of accumulation

of more than ten years of research on the subject and it includes research

on his travels to England, Germany, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the

Philippines. All this reinforced a conviction that gestures are powerful

communicators used by people all over the world.

The purpose of this book is to let people

know how powerful gestures can be when used correctly or incorrectly. He

also wants you to know how a gesture can mean one thing here and another

thing somewhere else, something as simple as a wave good bye, could get

you into a lot of trouble in another country.

This book was broken down into seven chapters:

Chapter 1, illustrated with numerous examples,

is that not only are gestures and body language powerful communicators,

but different cultures use gestures and body language in dramatically different


Chapter 2 discusses the most popular gestures

found around the world, beginning with how we greet each other. Shaking

hand is not the universal greeting. In fact, there are at least a half-dozen

other social greetings – even different ways of shaking hands. This chapter

also deals with farewells, beckoning, insulting, touching and other types

of gestures.

Chapter 3 gets into the special types of

gestures such as, American Sign Language, Tai Chi, flirting & kissing.

Chapter 4 is designed to help you learn

or trace a particular gesture, using scores of drawings.

Chapter 5 describes what the author calls

the ultimate gesture, which is simply the “smile”. It is rarely misunderstood,

scientist believe this particular gesture releases chemicals in the brain

called endorphins into the system that create a mild feeling of euphoria.

It also may help you slip out of the prickliest or difficult situation’s

world wide.

Chapter 6 is an important list of gestures

to keep in mind. It is compiled of 20 gestures that can help you separate

right from rude, and rude from crude.

Chapter 7 is a listing of country-by-country

common gestures and body languages. They group the countries by major geographic


The organization of the book was a combination

of narrative and topical. The basic point of view of the entire book was

that if you are planning to leave the United States and travel to another

country, you better either keep your hands in you pockets at all times

or know the proper gesture for the country you intend on visiting.

I would like to site some examples.

An American teenager was hitchhiking in

Nigeria. A carload of locals passed him. The car screeched to a halt. The

locals jumped out and promptly roughed up the teenage visitor. Why? Because

in Nigeria, the gesture commonly used in America for hitchhiking (thumb

extended upward) is considered a very rude signal.

An American couple on an auto tour in Australia

was stopped by a police officer in Sydney for failing to signal before

turning. Since they were tourists the officer gave them only a friendly

warning. Relieved, the American man responded with a smile and the thumbs-up

sign. The police officer became enraged, ordered the couple out of the

car, called a backup, searched the car, and finally gave the driver an

expensive ticket. Later, back in their hotel and recounting their experience,

the tourist learned that in Australia the thumbs-up gesture means “screw


As you can see this book has a humorous,

but yet serious overtone. It covers important aspects of body languages

& gestures in society which is serious stuff, that has a very strong

impact on all that come in contact with you. Yet the author is able to

express it in a comical nature. I enjoyed the book immensely.

There are many ways the ideas in this book

can be related to sociology. In fact the whole book is directly related

to the subject of sociology especially the culture aspect of it. I will

explain in the following paragraphs.

Anthologists divide our actions and gestures

into three broad categories: instinctive, coded and acquired.

Instinctive gestures are those we do almost

unconsciously. An example would be when we are suddenly shocked or surprised,

we tend to slap the back of our heads.

Coded, or technical, gestures are created

by preestablished agreement. For example hand signals used by TV directors,

referees, umpires and brokers in the stock market.

Acquired gestures, meaning our socially

generated and acquired gestures. This grouping of gestures has been loosely

and informally collected among separate societies. The acquired gestures

come from different cultures. Each individual culture or sub-culture has

its very own acquired gestures or mannerisms.

I learned the difference between what we,

as Americans, consider to be consensual in the area of gestures. If you

attempt to take your American gestures and attitudes to another country,

you’re in for quite the culture shock. An example of the culture shock

you may experience if you were to enter a European home would be that they

always keep the bathroom door shut. Even when it is not occupied. As where

an American home usually keeps its bathroom door partially open to indicate

that the it is unoccupied. So in Europe, you would always knock on the

door first.

Touching is something that we as North

Americans are not big on. We are not touch-oriented. With good friends,

we may occasionally do some touching of the forearm or shoulder. We may

even hug our good friends, but almost never do we hug casual acquaintances.

Asians even join us in the shunning of such bodily contact. Latinos and

Middle Easterners seem to dote on it with hearty embraces and warm pats

on the back. In these places you may even see two male friends walking

hand-in-hand down the street together, and all it signifies is friendship.

If you were to see that on any street in the U.S. the first thing we as

Americans would think is ” Hey those guys are homosexuals”.

The differences in culture are amazing,

Especially in the areas of gestures. A person lacking knowledge of this

could find himself in hot water if he were to visit one of our neighboring

countries. Things that we do strictly out of habit as Americans, could

be misconstrued as rude or offensive in other corners of the world. I will

let you in on some of them.

In Austria, Men rise when a woman enters

the room. Chewing gum in public is considered inappropriate. Hands in pockets

when conversing should be avoided. Placing your hands in your lap during

a meal is considered rude. Americans usually do not abide by these rules.

In England, Scotland and Wales, Loud conversations

and any form of boisterousness in public places should be avoided. Do not

stare at someone in public. If you smoke, it is the custom to offer cigarettes

to others in your conversational group before lighting up (Not here, smokes

are too expensive).

In Turkey, Inadvertently pointing the sole

of your shoe toward someone is an insult. Ask permission before smoking.

It is considered impolite to smoke or eat while on a public street. It

is considered rude to cross your arms over your chest or having your hands

in your pocket when conversing with someone. You must remove your shoes

when entering a Turkish home. Turkish women will not converse with a man

in casual conversation until they have been formally introduced. The thing

that I found most interesting is that the “O.K.” circle made with the thumb

and forefinger signifies homosexuality in their culture.

In Iran, Shaking hands with a child shows

respect for his parents. People rarely exhibit any signs of affection in

public. The thumbs up sign is considered vulgar. Avoid blowing your nose

in public. Refrain from slouching in a chair or stretching your legs out

in front of you. Also watch that dreaded pointing the sole of your shoe

, which again is considered offensive to anyone seeing it (keep you feet

planted flat to keep yourself out of trouble).

In Saudi Arabia, A man accompanied by a

veiled woman will probably not introduce her. Among the males, an embrace

and cheek-kiss may be added to their greeting. Women are not permitted

to drive vehicles. Take your shoes off before entering a room, any room.

Any display of intimate areas of the body is disliked; this includes bare

shoulders, stomach, and calves and thighs. Smoking of cigarettes in public

is not common practice. However, it is not uncommon in some Saudi locations

to pass the water pipe or hookah around to all those present in a room.

In Japan, displays of emotion-fear, anger,

exuberance- are rare because they are taught to suppress any such displays,

especially in public. Standing with arms folded across the chest signals

that the person is thinking intently. Women should avoid wearing high heels

so as not to risk towering over Japanese counterparts. Periods of silence

may occur during meetings, do not rush to fill the silent void, they are

just stopping to contemplate. Displaying a open mouth is considered rude.

In Pakistan, eat only with the right hand

because the left hand is used for bodily hygiene and is considered unclean.

Also never offer to shake hands with your left hand for the same reason.

Women are kept separated in social situations. Two men may be seen walking

along holding hands. This is nothing more than a sign of friendship, not


Last, but not least, In the good old United

States, The only time you will see two men walking down the street holding

hands is if they are openly homosexual. Stand at least an arm?s length

away from each other while conversing or standing in public, we tend to

need our comfort zone respected. Direct eye contact is very important.

There are two well-know rude and insulting gestures in the United States.

Both are recognized in all parts of the country. They are the middle finger

thrust and the forearm jerk, these gestures could get you into trouble.

We wave to say “hello” or “good-bye”.

We must learn that every culture has different

types of values, beliefs, customs, norms and taboos. We have to except

them and respect them for what they are and who they are. When going to

other parts of the world and meeting people or when they come to our part

of the world and we greet them it is very important to put ourselves in

their shoes and not judge their traditions, values and ways of communicating.

We must educate ourselves to their ways and except them for what they are.

Our convictions and beliefs are no better than there?s, they are just different.

As human beings we must learn to adapt to each others differences and learn

to except them, which is sometimes hard for people who do not understand


Most Americans tend to be insensitive to

they ways of others, especially those who come from our neighboring countries,

which tends to create tension among those people. To be honest I found

some of the behaviors of other countries strange, such as women not being

allowed to drive a motor vehicle in Saudi Arabia. If I was not allowed

to drive because I was a female I would be quite angry. I also would probably

be one of the first people to accuse someone of being homosexual, especially

men, if I were to see two people of the same sex walking down the street

holding hands. Those are things we need to except because this is part

of someone?s culture. If this was how they were raised, and the things

that they believe to be OK, who are we to judge it?

Since reading this book I have really opened

my eyes to the way other countries do things that we might find unexceptable,

and I now find them expectable. Had I not read this book I might have never

opened my eyes to these cultural differences.

I feel that everyone should read this book.

I can not think of any reason why someone should not read this book. I

don?t feel that this book would offend anyone. Than again this is a strange

world and you never know who will be offended by what. I feel that most

people will be enlightened, supprised, and get a good laugh out of most

parts of this book. There is a part of this book that deals with “mooning”

which some may be offended by, but most people would probably get a good

laugh out of it. I personally highly recommend this book, great bedtime

reading. If you plan to travel this book is a must.

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