When I first immigrated to Canada, I was totally perplexed why people got so upset with the gesture of “the finger” when they fondly waved around “ two fingers” in some sort of victory dance. You see, pointing two fingers to an individual with the back of your hands facing that individual in England is “swearing”. Yes, that’s right- you are being rude. It is the “F” word. Whereas “the finger sign” in North America is meaningless across the pond ie in the UK.
So that is why I ask the question, “As leaders, are we really sure what we are conveying with our gestures?”
I recall a contract I was working on where I had the role to assess an organization’s readiness for an enterprise system implementation. The senior management for the most part were from North America. Middle management and most of the employee base ( about 80-90% ) were Asian. In fact, new immigrants to Canada. In a session of reviewing the orgnaization’s performance, the senior management was totally animated. Arms, hands flapping and pointing- pleading for feedback from their employees. The pleads were sincere however totally ineffective.
In fact the more animated the pleads, the more withdrawn the employees became.
The reasons were so obvious to me and yet perplexing for so many in the room.
Culture, my friends. Values, protocols totally mis-aligned and consequently ineffective motivators.
Gestures are taboo in many Asian countries. Depending on that gesture it could be perceived as being totally disrespectful. Needless to say, gestures such as pointing, especially with the index finger, are taboo although directing with the full hand is usually acceptable.
Using the left hand for any public purpose usually is unacceptable in many Middle Eastern countries.
Another good example is the gesture below.
In a brief post on cultural differences, they do a good summary of the use of the North American O.K. sign in different cultures.
In Brazil, Germany, Russia, Denmark, Italy and Guatemala
- This sign is an insult! (post publication: my readers have shared it is not really an insult in Germany and Italy- good to know)
- This gesture stands for coins and money. So you need to watch your gestures in Japan in that it could be misinterpreted as requesting a bribe when making a transaction! So if you are feeling good about a transaction, you are better off saying so and not using this sign.
- This sign is negative. It stands for “zero” or “worthless”.
UK and US
- It means O.K. An approval or a feel good sign.
So as a leader, if you find that you are being ineffective in certain situations you may want to do a “mental replay” of a meeting or incidence to better understand what could have been the reason. Take a closer look at your own body language and animation.
….And be careful on how you wave your hands around! LOL!
- Global Leadership: How Much Skin Is Enough? (williampearl.wordpress.com)
- Interesting Cultural Difference (DITTO Translation Agency)
- Talk With Your Hands
Photo by aussiegall (great pics)