Every day, we voluntarily make a variety of gestures. We perform them in order to relay information that others can understand. The frequency with which this happens may lead us to believe that a gesture has meaning. On the contrary, the gestures alone have no meaning, the meaning is given by those who interpret it.
When we travel to places with cultures different from our own, the way others move and act may seem strange. We may not understand the meaning of their gestures, even if they are similar to gestures we make. The truth is, every gesture is its own world, or at least it can be.
Let’s take a wink as an example. This gesture consists of closing one eye for a short period of time, while the other remains open. It is an easy gesture to recognize but not so easy to interpret.
Imagine this situation: several people are drinking coffee on the terrace of a cafe. A boy winks at a girl who is looking at him. At another table, another boy who isn’t directly looking at anyone also winks. The girl returns the wink to the boy, while another girl, who looks at all three, winks.
How can we interpret this situation? If you want, think about the meaning you would give each wink so, as you continue reading, you can compare them with the real meaning. Here is the interpretation of this story:
- The first boy who winked did so intentionally. He wanted to attract the attention of a girl he was interested in. The gesture of winking intentionally has meaning as a courtship ritual and serves to show intentions, romantic interest. It is also a gesture that sometimes seeks to confirm or highlight complicity. In another context, it could also mean mockery, especially if it had been accompanied by sarcasm.
- The second boy who winked did it involuntarily. He has a tic that caused him to wink. Because it was a tic, he did not look at anyone.
- The girl who returned the wink to the boy did so because she wanted to fit in. She is from a different culture, in which the act of winking has no meaning. This girl returned the wink because she thought it was something culturally appropriate, as if it were a greeting.
- Finally, we come to the girl who sees the whole scene and winks. She winked simply because something has entered her eye. The act of winking, in this case, is a reflex act to remove the particle that has entered her eye. Therefore, the wink is involuntary.
This story, though it’s invented, shows that winks can have several meanings and be voluntary or involuntary. Have you guessed the meaning of a wink? Imagine how difficult it can be to interpret this sign. Without evidence of the meaning that a sign usually has in each context, guessing the meaning of a gesture can be very complicated.
Saussure: meaning and significance
For Ferdinand de Saussure, gestures are composed of the union between meaning and signifier. The meaning is what the gesture means, while the signifier is the word that represents it. This includes both its spelling and pronunciation. In the case of gestures, the signifier would be the gesture itself.
The union of both, between signifier and meaning, does not present any motivation for which its relation is arbitrary. This means that a simple hand movement can have a meaning with which it has no relationship. Hence, sometimes, it is difficult to know the meaning of gestures.
A gesture in another culture
Different cultures usually have gestures with different meanings. Some of these gestures which have a different meaning than what you may be familiar with are as follows:
- Giving a thumbs up typically means everything is fine. But in Germany, it signifies the number one, and in the Middle East it is a gesture of anger towards someone.
- Finishing all the food on your plate may mean, to you, that the food was very good. However, the same action in China and the Philippines indicates that the ration was scarce and the host was stingy.
- Extending the palm of the hand outwards is a sign we make to signal that someone should stop or wait. In Greece, placing the hand this way is a way of calling another person a criminal.
- Extending the index and pinky fingers while folding the others over the palm can indicate “rock on” in the United States. In Spain, however, this gesture is used to indicate that someone’s partner is being unfaithful to them. In Africa, this gesture indicates a curse. A similar hand gesture, in which the thumb and pinky are extended, is a common greeting in Hawaii.
- Giving flowers commonly serves to show love or sympathy. Most of us do not stop to count the number of flowers. However, in Russia, giving an even number of flowers signifies a wish for the receiver of the flowers to die.
The next time you travel, be careful with how you interpret gestures, and be much more careful about the gestures you make. When we do not know a culture or context, we can reach absurd conclusions. When in doubt, a question can help avoid conflict.