As Leaders, Are You Sure About What You Are Conveying With Your Gestures?

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In fact the more animated the pleads, the more withdrawn the employees became.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)

In Japan

  • 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.
In France and Australia
  • 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!



Photo by aussiegall (great pics)

About Shirley Williams

I have a passion to create, resolve and build.I have had a pretty dynamic career that some say has led to a solid reputation as a visionary, result-driven and passionate leader. I say, simplify the complexity, work WITH people and you have a formula that not only deliver results but forms bonds that will stand the test of time. I have led numerous initiatives with a geographical scope that has included Canada, US, The South Americas,Europe and Australia. My professional career spans Biotechnology, Brand & Generic Pharmaceuticals, IBM Business Consulting Services, Healthcare, Retail, Electronics, more recently Mining and now Social Media. I am a biochemist and have a Master of Scence degree in endocrine pharmacology. I am a certified practitioner and professional in Change Management (Prosci), Project Management (PMP/PMI) and Social Media (OMCP, Online Marketing Certified Professional). So that makes my full title to be: Shirley Williams, MSc. PMP. CMC. OCMP. Having spent many years in the LifeSciences (you can check my career profile on Linkedin ) I have now directed my attention to bridging strategy and goals with social media. Loving it! In fact I am passionate about it. I have also produced and currently host my own internet radio show. My programs to-date have included Rise Of The Patient and Give Startups A Chance. I consider myself as an Experience Enabler. I facilitate and advocate for improved experience from the consumer perspective. Thank you for stopping by to check me out!

6 Responses to “As Leaders, Are You Sure About What You Are Conveying With Your Gestures?”

  1. Not sure if the “Ok” sign is seen in germany as an insult. Never insulted a german with that gesture. 😛
    Perhaps they find it offensive in more traditional places…

  2. Hello Shirley thanks for sharing definitely gestures can have different meanings in different places. As an Italian who has led a project in Brazil though I have to tell you that the ‘OK’ sign has no insulting meaning in Italy, so I had to learn it first hand as a “different meaning” one myself: OK in Italy, insult in Brazil.

    • I stand corrected Fabrizo! Thanks for sharing. I have always been careful in using hand gestures in different countries. I have visited Brazil and Argentina. I know that there is a huge Italian influence in Argentina and so refrained from these gestures and thought it may have the same connotation in Italy. So good to know. Cheers!

  3. I’m left handed! I;m glad I read about that! lol

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