Mixed Signals: When A-OK is not Okay

Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

04.24.09 | 10:28 AM ET

Osh, Kyrgysztan. REUTERS/Viktor Korotayev

The other day I stood before a few dozen teenagers in Kyrgyzstan and, without warning, propositioned them. Before you condemn me—or call for my arrest—allow me to explain. I was teaching an English class and I guess I was a bit nervous, so I began swinging my arms, smacking the fist of one hand into the palm of the other—a harmless tick in much of the world but in Kyrgyzstan a discreet way of asking for sex. A fellow teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer wise in the ways of Kyrgyz hand gestures, quickly intervened. But it was too late. The kids burst into laughter and I turned beet red. Amazing, I thought, as the tittering continued for a painfully long time: I don’t speak a word of Kyrgyz but somehow I managed to make a complete ass of myself.

Body language, as we know, is far from universal. What in most of the world is the A-OK sign—index finger and thumb curled into the shape of an “o”—in Brazil refers to a particular orifice. In Britain, flash the “V” for victory sign (with the outside of your hand facing the recipient) and you take your life into your own hands, so to speak. 

Even something as seemingly straightforward as a head nod can lead to trouble. In Bulgaria, yes and no are backward (at least from our perspective). When Bulgarians nod their heads up and down they mean no. Then there’s the notorious Indian head joggle, which means more than “no” but considerably less than “yes.” It has bedeviled many a traveler.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Such cultural differences are what make travel worthwhile. I’m surprised and delighted that this rich and colorful tapestry of hand gestures survives, even as spoken languages disappear at an alarming rate. And who would think that in this, the Age of the Tweet, such a primeval form of communication as the thumbs up (or for that matter the middle finger) would persist?

Psychologists tell us that only a small percentage of our communication—10 percent, according to some—is conveyed by words. The rest is body language and tone of voice, things even the most well-packed Twitter tweet or Facebook update can’t convey. That makes sense and explains why some commentators were upset with President Obama’s recent meetings with two world leaders: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It wasn’t anything that Obama said, at least not in the verbal sense. It was the fact that he appeared to bow before King Abdullah and was too “chummy” with Chavez.

For most of us, thankfully, the communication stakes aren’t so high. So, Vive la difference, I say, but with a nod (Bulgarian or otherwise) to caution.

My little misunderstanding in Kyrgyzstan spooked me and for a while I kept my hands in my pockets, lest they cause further offense. But there I was at a restaurant in the southern city of Osh trying to ask for the check. Not speaking a word of Kyrgyz (or Russian), I removed my hands from my pockets and deployed my left hand as an air pen and my right as a piece of paper. The waitress hesitated, just for a second, and fear flashed through my mind. Did I just insult her mother? Is she, at this very moment, summoning her very large and ruthless brothers to avenge their family’s good name? A real panic boiled up in my mind until, a minute later, she strolled over to my table and handed me the check. Relieved, I paid the bill and walked out, giving her a big thumbs up, signaling of course that I enjoyed the meal. Good thing, I thought, this wasn’t Sardinia, where a thumbs up can lead to a fistful of trouble.

3 Comments for Mixed Signals: When A-OK is not Okay

ciel 04.24.09 | 12:25 PM ET

i love the article as I am really interested in body language and how different we communicate around the globe. What is natural for one is hilarious or inapropriate for others.

Regarding body language, I recently discovered that when we lie our nose becomes enlarged as in the story of Pinocchio: http://leerlenguajecorporal.blogspot.com/search/label/Lying


kdl40w5500 04.24.09 | 1:03 PM ET

Really great article, it’s like the HSBC advert that shows you what might be considered polite in one country can lead to fighting in another.  What a colourful world we live in!

kdl40w5500 05.19.09 | 9:36 AM ET

Kind of like the sign for terrific (touching thumb and middle finger together to form a circle) in some coutires means the opposite in others.  Although I image using it inappropriately wouldn’t be quite as embarrassing as your experience.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.