Apparently we think that words are the only form of communication because we live in a highly verbal environment. Yet in reality there is a far greater amount of nonverbal communication going on all the time.
Visiting Gathoni, a family friend residing at Ndetu, a small village resting below Mount Kenya, in a bid to impress my hosts I quickly mastered a few crucial words in their lingo. In just a few hours, I could say hello, please and thank you fluently. And all was well for the first days. That is until my friend took me to visit his uncle who also happened to be a village chief or something. I always admired tradition bosses, theres something fascinating about their royal regalia and pomposity .My friend coached me on how I was to behave when we reach at His Highness’s palace.
“Don’t bow your head or wave at him (the chief), just look him straight in the eyes, stick your tongue out and flick it from side to side like a snake. That’s how we greet the tribal leader.” My friend educated me. Though I found it kind of bizarre, I didn’t dwell much on it, after all greetings differs from place to place.
And that’s how exactly I addressed his highness, but the look in his eyes indicated that something was terribly wrong, his larger than life jaw dropped, his big eyes bulged. My first instincts were surprise and confusion. My natural inner alarm went off.
Before I knew it, a horde of raging villagers armed with pitchforks and axes were chasing me down a muddy road, cursing me to their gods baying for my blood for insulting their ruler. Until today I don’t know what saved me, was it my running, my screams or my prayers?
Since that narrow escape, I’m now hesitant when it comes to employing a new sign. That incident made me realise that we live in a world of symbols, and it is extremely important to understand something about the symbols and their meaning before you flash them.
Take example of the famous V-sign, a hand gesture in which the index and middle fingers are raised and parted while the other fingers are clenched. It has various meanings, depending on the cultural context and how it is presented.
This V-sign don’t sit well with the French. It is believed that during the 100 Year War the French would cut off the middle and index fingers of any English bowman so as they could never shoot again. The English would taunt the French by showing their fingers, so as to say “I can still shoot you!”
Also the V-sign can’t stand for Victory. But be careful not to confuse it with the peace sign which is the reverse of it with the palm and fingers facing the viewer instead of the back of the hand.
Another common sign is the famous thumbs-up sign; it consists of a closed fist held with the thumb extended upward. The most common interpretation of this sign is as a sing of approval but there are some countries where it may be an insult or where it will not be understood. This gesture is a very obscene gesture in Iran.
If you find yourself on foreign soil, it’s always best to know how ‘not’ to enrage your host with a native insult. Hand gestures mean different things in different places and countries. What is considered a cool sign may be a grave insult in another country.