common gestures in the efl classroom

Understanding Different Interpretations of Common Gestures

It is important for teachers to understand how the gestures they use in class may be misunderstood. This activity allows participants to look a little closer at how body language (or paralinguistics) might be interpreted by our students.

Try out the gestures below yourself in class with your students, and ask them to write down what they think each gesture means. Your students should also note down if they think the gesture is considered rude in the UK or not. Put students into small groups of 3 or 4 and ask them to discuss how body language could influence communication between cultures.

  • Beckon with index finger
  • Point at something in the room using index finger
  • Make a “V” sign both ways; front and back of fingers
  • Wink with one eye
  • Sit with sole of feet or shoe showing
  • Form a circle with fingers to indicate “O.K.”
  • Pat a student on the head
  • Shake a student’s hand with your left hand
  • Nod head up and down to say “Yes.”

Each of the following responses give a general guide to cultural differences in the meaning of gestures.

  1. Beckon with index finger. This means “Come here” in the UK. To motion with the index finger to call someone can be awfully rude in many cultures. Expect a reaction when you beckon to a student from the Middle or Far East; Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, Indonesia and Hong Kong. It is more acceptable to beckon with the palm down, with fingers all together or whole hand waving.
  2. Point at something in the room using index finger. It is impolite to point with the index finger in the Middle and Far East. Use an open hand or your thumb (in Indonesia)
  3. Make a “V” sign. This means “Victory” in most of Europe when you make this sign with your palm facing away from you. If you face your palm in, the same gesture means “Shove it.” (and I’m putting it politely)
  4. Wink with one eye. Can mean “well done” or have a sexual connotation. So we must take care with this gesture.
  5. Sit with soles shoes showing. In many cultures this sends a rude message. In Thailand, Japan and France as well as countries of the Middle and Near East showing the soles of the feet demonstrates disrespect. You are exposing the lowest and dirtiest part of your body so this is insulting.
  6. Form a circle with fingers to indicate “O.K.” Although this means “O.K.” in the UK. and in many countries around the world, there are some notable exceptions:
    1. In Brazil and Germany, this gesture is obscene.
    2. In Japan, this means “money.”
    3. In France, it has the additional meaning of “zero” or “worthless.”
  7. Pat a student on the head. This is very upsetting to students from Asia. The head is the repository of the soul in the Buddhist religion. Children from cultures which are influenced by Buddhism will feel uncomfortable if their head is touched.
  8. Pass an item to someone with one hand. – In Japan this is very rude. Even a very small item such as a pencil must be passed with two hands. In many Middle and Far Eastern countries it is rude to pass something with your left hand which is considered “unclean.”
  9. Nod head up and down to say “Yes.” In Bulgaria and Greece, this gesture means “No.”

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