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Looking for signs: understanding foreign body language

| 26 comments | Category: learning languages

Explanations of foreign body language / gestures is one of the many many things you won’t find in grammar books and typical courses. And it’s something you’ll never pick up from audio based passive learning.

The vast majority of non-verbal communication is actually universal – it would just seem strange to list them. But then there are quite a few gestures that are indeed very different or unique to particular cultures. Without learning these you will never be able to fully communicate with and understand people from these countries.

Is the nightclub separating the thumb from fingers??

This important aspect of communication has been clear to me many times during my travels. For example, during my Brazilian mission to speak like a Carioca, things were going well in my accent reduction attempts, but one night I was in a nightclub looking out the window and a man was trying to communicate with me. Since it was too loud to shout, he tried to sign something to me – with his arm up he separated his thumb from his fingers repeatedly. To him it was pretty obvious what he was trying to say.

Unfortunately I couldn’t answer his question – only later when I asked a friend inside what it meant did she tell me that it was cheio - full. That’s the Brazilian sign for full – something we can’t even sign in English (at least that I know of). He wanted to know if the nightclub was full or not.

Philippine gestures

Of course, I’m finding quite a few of these unique gestures here in the Philippines! You can see me demonstrate a couple of these in the video below:

Those shown in the video include pointing with your lips (rather than your finger) and the “menu please” and “check/bill please” signs used in restaurants, completely different to anywhere else I’ve lived in.

Pointing with your lips (rather than your fingers) is something I’ve seen in other cultures, including Colombia. The first time I was exposed to this it was very confusing, as it doesn’t seem natural to me to indicate something with lips (I can visualise a line coming from a finger to the target a lot easier than from lips!) but in many places pointing with your finger is actually quite rude.

Another confusing part of Philippine gestures is how they request that you come over to them. They put out their arm with their palm facing down and “scoot” their fingers towards them. Since I am used to the palm facing up if someone is beckoning me towards them, I got confused about this a lot and thought they wanted me to move away.

And of course the feeling involved with the “scoot”/”go away” gesture could create a lot of confusion since it’s disrespectful in some cultures. Understanding what this really means in its correct context will help you understand what is going on, well beyond studying vocabulary lists ever could.

The importance of actively learning such non-verbal communication

There are so many aspects of communication that are almost never covered in typical books. So much time in Latin cultures has meant that now if I hurt myself, I say “¡ay!” rather than “ouch!/ow!” – this isn’t because I am translating it in my head, or for someone else’s benefit; it’s from pure exposure to the extent where it becomes natural.

It’s the same with body language. Even if you do find a book that somehow lists all of the most frequent different signs – it may help you understand them when you see them, but without putting them in context and using them with natives, they can never become a natural part of your ability to communicate.

That’s why I really must insist that people stop putting off this crucial stage of speaking directly with natives to some bogus “when I’m ready” day. I see the entire language-learning industry of books, CDs, courses, software – as nothing more than a way to embrace people’s desire to postpone actually using their language as long as possible (as well as a purely commercial rather than actually beneficial endeavour).

It’s busy-work. You may not be speaking with someone but “at least” you have learned all the preposition+verb combinations or clicked a hell of a lot of pictures on your computer screen.

Reading about the lip-pointing or downward-palm beckoning would have been interesting, but seeing them in context means that I’ll never forget them. It also means that I’ll adapt them myself much quicker. Of course, I don’t need to be in the Philippines to do this – just hanging out with native Filipinos elsewhere would expose me to such things.

Check it out and then use it!

Since natives usually can’t simply give you a list of their various body language differences, you’d be surprised to see what you can find online for free. Simply doing a Youtube search for “[Language name] hand gestures” or “… body language” or “… signs” will show you a crucial aspect of communication in your target language you may not have considered yet.

You’ll likely get even more results if you do that search in the target language. So many natives have made very helpful videos, but (as would be natural to them) they write the name of the video in their language.

But rather than just watch the video and think “that’s nice!” – please go meet a native speaker and practise those signs! Or better yet, learn from them! I’ve learned pretty much all my body language from seeing it used in context, or simply asking what it means when I see it and it isn’t clear.

When I hang out with people from various cultures, I get told again and again that they feel like they are talking with someone from their home country and I have no problem making friends with them. Even the friendliest expats I know still feel disconnected and need to hang out with those from the same culture as them when abroad because they just can’t seem to click with natives.

I can blend in easier not because of absolutely perfect grammar (I still make occasional mistakes even in my best languages) or access to obscure vocabulary. It’s not even down to my accent (which is only really somewhat convincing in Portuguese and Spanish). It’s because of my body language and understanding of important social cues.

Books might talk about these, and perhaps you’ll recognise some of them when observing passively. But you can never really learn them without applying them.

So please, search social networks, find tourists or do whatever it takes to get some time with someone in your target language and don’t forget that communication isn’t just about the words that come out of your mouth!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • http://www.rognalf.com Kristian

    I’m kind of shocked that I haven’t thought about this aspect of spanish (Peru) yet. I bet those who have studied it in school for 5 years aren’t much wiser about the subject either. I do have the ability to smile though, so my body language glass is half full already ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Once you mimic the body language of the Peruvians, you’ll find it a lot easier to blend in – body language is louder than skin colour in my opinion!

  • Anonymous

    Benny, not only is learning body gestures better in person and in context because they stick with you, but it is so much more exciting! Who wants to learn some boring list from a book… egh.

    Hope you are enjoying the Philippines!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Things learned in person definitely stick with you much better!
      The Philippines are fantastic! I’ll write another update (with a video tour of my cottage) later this week.

      • http://www.getintoenglish.com http://www.getintoenglish.com

        This is such an interesting area. Funny too how politicians can go to another country and not even realise they’re offending the locals. Doesn’t happen as much these days but there are some famous examples..One example from living in Prague: if you want one beer in a pub, you should use your thumb to count. If you use your index finger, they might bring over two!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Things learned in person definitely stick with you much better!
      The Philippines are fantastic! I’ll write another update (with a video tour of my cottage) later this week.

  • Jon

    Great post benny , i was hoping you where goin to touch on this. Have you had many situations where easily reconizable signs have been completly misunderstood as something ele? I read somewhere that in greece that thumps up which in the u.k is usually understood as good means up you arse or somthin like that. You mentioned flirting in tagalog what those signs like in other countries you’ve visited?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’ll always hear stories of particular signs that are offensive in other countries. While these are amusing, I think the more subtle less striking differences are more numerous (like the Philippine “come here” seeming like “go away”), but I’m not interested in listing out these differences as it’s been done to death. It’s better to just find signs that you might not even be aware existed (like the Portuguese “full” example I gave) and learn them.
      When did I mention flirting in Tagalog…? Perhaps in another post. I don’t waste time ogling at girls from a distance, so most of my flirting is based on action and words, which is indeed more universal, but understanding reactions in different contexts is mentality rather than body language and something for another discussion!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’ll always hear stories of particular signs that are offensive in other countries. While these are amusing, I think the more subtle less striking differences are more numerous (like the Philippine “come here” seeming like “go away”), but I’m not interested in listing out these differences as it’s been done to death. It’s better to just find signs that you might not even be aware existed (like the Portuguese “full” example I gave) and learn them.
      When did I mention flirting in Tagalog…? Perhaps in another post. I don’t waste time ogling at girls from a distance, so most of my flirting is based on action and words, which is indeed more universal, but understanding reactions in different contexts is mentality rather than body language and something for another discussion!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’ll always hear stories of particular signs that are offensive in other countries. While these are amusing, I think the more subtle less striking differences are more numerous (like the Philippine “come here” seeming like “go away”), but I’m not interested in listing out these differences as it’s been done to death. It’s better to just find signs that you might not even be aware existed (like the Portuguese “full” example I gave) and learn them.
      When did I mention flirting in Tagalog…? Perhaps in another post. I don’t waste time ogling at girls from a distance, so most of my flirting is based on action and words, which is indeed more universal, but understanding reactions in different contexts is mentality rather than body language and something for another discussion!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’ll always hear stories of particular signs that are offensive in other countries. While these are amusing, I think the more subtle less striking differences are more numerous (like the Philippine “come here” seeming like “go away”), but I’m not interested in listing out these differences as it’s been done to death. It’s better to just find signs that you might not even be aware existed (like the Portuguese “full” example I gave) and learn them.
      When did I mention flirting in Tagalog…? Perhaps in another post. I don’t waste time ogling at girls from a distance, so most of my flirting is based on action and words, which is indeed more universal, but understanding reactions in different contexts is mentality rather than body language and something for another discussion!

  • bfc

    Hey Benny! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. I learn new languages as a hobbie (I currently speak English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, some Catalan, Latin and German). One thing that was very useful for me was trying to watch the news (spoken in the language I was learning) every time I was struggling to learn a new language. So I’m leaving a suggestion for a future post, it’s about Livestation, a simple, easy to use software where you can watch the RAI, TV5, DeutscheWelle and many other news channels from your computer. I think it’s a great tip for those who are learning a new language as well! :)

  • Anonymous

    My favorite Filipino gesture, and one that I’ve seemed to take home with me is raising one or two hands up to ear level and rotating your palm while your hand points up. It’s used all the time to indicate “there is nothing” “we are out” or “I’ve got nothing” and sometimes even “scram.” :D Its roughly the equivalent of “wala.” Very fun and useful.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Cool! I’ll look out for it :D Thanks!

    • Judd

      I agree! this is my favorite one too!

      I was caught off guard with this gesture because I went to the Philippines after having lived in Korea for 5 months, and in Korea, they make an “X” with their arms to show “no”, “nothing”, or “not allowed.”

      I initially thought everyone was cheering or something xD

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Yup, I don’t buy the oft-repeated figure that 90-some-odd-percent of communication is non-verbal, but I do think it’s a LOT more than most people feel as though it is, it’s extremely important and makes that last final step across the bridge towards connecting with someone that you just won’t do if you’re not speaking their body language which, as you pointed out, varies greatly from country-to-country and culture-to-culture.

    Do you find that most body language is universal and translates across cultures or that most of it is culture-specific? In other words, will most of the body language that an American or an Irishman knows work in most countries, or not?

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Yup, I don’t buy the oft-repeated figure that 90-some-odd-percent of communication is non-verbal, but I do think it’s a LOT more than most people feel as though it is, it’s extremely important and makes that last final step across the bridge towards connecting with someone that you just won’t do if you’re not speaking their body language which, as you pointed out, varies greatly from country-to-country and culture-to-culture.

    Do you find that most body language is universal and translates across cultures or that most of it is culture-specific? In other words, will most of the body language that an American or an Irishman knows work in most countries, or not?

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      That figure is actually about EMOTIONAL communication (not all communication), and that really is universal. How we show anger or happiness, impatience or celebration, reverence etc. – many of the basics of all of these are the same even if there are particular rules in some cultures about small aspects of them.

      This is definitely MOST communication. But a pessimist will be quick to disregard such a vast amount of crucial commonalities and focus on the tiny fraction that’s different and make it seem like most communication is impossible.

  • Judd

    Have you seen seen/heard/experienced the one where Filipinos (usually by an older person to a younger person) call out something meaning “hey” , “hey you”, or “hey come here” ?

    It’s sort of a combo of the “lip point”, the “palm-down finger-wave” and this short “hwish” sound they make while they’re pointing with their lips.

    It’s really fun!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haven’t seen that one, but the whispering sound is used a lot to generally get someone’s attention or getting through crowds (like “excuse me”).

  • Annette

    Thanks for sharing the video! I find this really interesting. Certainly body language is an important part of understanding and fitting in with a culture. It is very easily overlooked, isn’t it? A friend of mine told me he went to his ESL class the other day and learned about body language. At first I thought that’s strange… isn’t body language universal? No, it isn’t, and actually I knew that but seeing your video and explanations shows it’s even less ‘universal’ than I thought! Thanks for sharing :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      That’s excellent to see ESL teachers teach this! :)

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s important not only to learn body language and gestures used in the places where you’re visiting but also body gestures not to use! How do you go about finding out what gestures you shouldn’t use in a particular country? That seems like it would be more difficult to figure out by hanging out with natives…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Are you kidding? By hanging out with natives you will see *very quickly* what is taboo as they react to you. If you are social (rather than communicating only with waiters etc.) then your friends will tell you you are doing something inappropriate. More than books could ever show you. You have to endure a moment of embarrassment, but you won’t forget it in a hurry thanks to that ;)

  • Ashley Nichole Solomon

    Sorry if I’m being dull, but I love your manner of speaking.

    That being said…
    Pointing with the lips doesn’t look strange. It is kinda sensuous. Like you said, flirting with a fish, but not aimed at a fish…

  • Lynn Malcolm

    I’ve noticed a lot of northern Aboriginal cultures point with their lips up here in Canada. I first noticed it when I lived in Inuvik, NT, and you can still see it here and there in Yellowknife, as well. :)