Have you ever heard the saying “A smile means the same in any language”? While this statement may be true, it might be one of the few generalizations a person can make about gestures or facial expressions being universal.

Gestures are given meaning by the culture in which they are used and since they have usually been around for a long time, that meaning is widely understood by those who pass it down from generation to generation, but outsiders may have no idea what they mean, or may assume they carry the meaning that they do in other cultures.

With globalization and YouTube, we have come to know more about the culture clashes that arise when gestures from one culture are used in the context of another. When tourists from Japan come to tour the Rockies, you may see them grouping in front of beautiful scenery for a photo holding up two fingers on each hand in a “peace” symbol. Yet, you may be surprised to learn that in a culture where it is (or rather, previously was) uncommon to smile in pictures, this gesture symbolizes a smile and indicates that the person in the picture is having fun!

YouTube boasts many examples of travel and culture videos explaining cultural differences between gestures. These videos include examples that show how people from different cultures use their fingers differently for counting. As a result, in Canada, we hold up two fingers (similarly to the peace sign) to indicate we would like two of something, but in Europe, they start with the thumb as number one, so they would hold up the thumb and first finger to indicate “two”. Both of those types of counting would add a second hand to go past 5, but in Japan counting starts with an open palm, closing in fingers one at a time from thumb to pinky finger until the fist is closed (five) and then opened one at a time starting with the pinky finger until the palm is open (ten). Chinese finger counting is even more complicated!

While gestures differ between cultures, they also change over time within a culture. I have recently observed my teens trying to get out of chores by touching their noses as a symbol for “not me”. This is not a gesture I grew up with and it took quite a while for me to figure out what it meant and notice how often they were using it. Then I observed my Japanese students doing the same gesture, only to discover it means the opposite. So, when I ask them “Who wants to be first?” they expect me to choose the ones who first touched their nose.

Since gestures are non-verbal, they are often overlooked as important elements of an ESL classroom. However, they can lead to considerable confusion and misunderstanding, so a lesson on gestures can add to the teaching we do. It begins with a discussion of the students’ experiences with gestures in their home culture and in Canada. Students might be interested to know how vastly gestures differ among cultures. They might be able to shed insights on why some of those differences exist. They might also have theories as to how these differences might evolve as cultures grow closer together through travel and globalization. By expanding our class content to include discussions of intercultural communication in the form of gestures we enrich the learning of our students who daily encounter gestures that may differ greatly from the gestures they encountered growing up outside of Canada.

Roswita-Dressler-Jan-2015Dr. Roswita Dressler, Ph.D