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What is Culture?

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Gestures vary considerably from one community or ethnicity to another.  A newcomer must learn the meanings of various gestures in the host culture. One cannot assume gestures so natural to us in our host culture will work in the new culture.

It is helpful to observe how members of a society new to you relate to each other.  In our own society, we learn this type of thing, for the most part, without realizing it.  

In your new host society, you should actively observe and try to develop similar motions and facial expressions as you see the locals using.  This will enhance your relationships and communication, no matter what language you are using.

I'll mention here some specific gestures or related social expressions that might be of interest, from the African context.  My wife and I lived and worked for about 25 years in East Africa, and I worked in several countries of Africa studying languages and cultures.  

There are thousands of ethnicities in Africa, and over 2000 languages.  Oddly, some of these things are hard to remember in specifics.  They just become part of how you relate and act in each place as you learn and adjust.

The Maasai and some other peoples in East Africa point with the chin, while looking in the direction they indicate.  It is impolite, or even rude, to point with the index finger, as Germanic peoples do, and insulting to point your index finger at someone.

Pointed Chin
Besides greetings, gestures are a regular part of conversation. For instance, Maasai and various other African peoples point with the chin, not the forefinger. For many African peoples, pointing with the finger is impolite. Pointing at a person is even offensive.

Calling Someone to You
Hand motions have various meanings indicating threat or acceptance, or personal attitude toward someone.  For instance, the common American practice of calling someone to you by crooking your forefinger several times toward yourself is highly insulting in most of Africa.  

Most African peoples, and many Asian peoples call someone, or indicate it is OK to approach by placing the fingers of the right hand downward, with the palm toward the speaker (caller) and motioning with the whole hand down and toward the speaker.

In a  restaurant in Nairobi, for instance, you would raise your hand to head height or a bit higher, just as in an American situation, but you would motion with the whole hand, palm down.  In practice the fingers may be almost extended forward, so you are actually "waving" your hand downward, similar to one form of the American wave of "goodbye."

In most cultures of Eastern Africa, you do not traditionally look directly and intently at the person you are talking to.  You might glance into their eyes as you start a sentence, or periodically if they are speaking to you, looking quickly at them, then down and to the side.  To look intently, which for Americans indicate polite and complete attention to the person addressing, can be taken as threatening to an African.

One would tend to look over the shoulder, swing the eyes down to one side and across to the other, periodically catching the eye of the other person, to retain interest and be sure they are following your conversation.  The specifics of intensity and frequency of direct looking, and exactly where the "away" glances are made, varies with each of the hundreds of tribes of peoples in the Eastern African countries.  The better you know the person the more you would look directly at each other.  In cities and with younger people, you will noticee more western patterns.

Often a handshake, of any of the many varieties different tribes may use, is accompanied by a slight bowing or tilting the torso slightly forward, or bowing the head, similar to the formal greeting used in Europe when greeting royalty of visiting diplomats (similarly in the US, though it not as frequent in the US).

In some locales, a child might bow forward to the waist, after extending her hand to the adult, continuing to hold the adult's hand until coming up out of the bow. Also in those situations, the youth would rarely look the adult in the eyes, which would be considered impolite, impudent or disrespectful.

Adults (of equal station) would commonly only make a gesture of a slight bow toward each other while shaking hands.

Other practices
Other types of common social expressions might be of interest.  In many cultures it is considered necessary to belch loudly to compliment the cook on the meal.  This is common in many African and other cultures.

It is also considered the polite things to do to smack your lips while eating.  This also expresses enjoyment of the food, as well as thanks to the

In India, people show puzzlement or sorrow by bobbing their head in a sort of figure eight, up and down at the same time with the eyes and face still forward.  You may have seen this gesture in movies about India.

Many societies shake the head form side to side to indicate Yes, whereas most European cultures use this gesture to indicate No.

Left Hand Prohibition
In many cultures of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, you do not use your left hand to take or hand anything to anyone else, or even to motion with when talking.  This is especially important with food, in a group setting.

It can be very awkward when a left-handed person is seen writing someone's name in such a culture.  One of my friends was challenged by a Maasai acquaintance when the Maasai discovered the American writing his name on a piece of paper with his left hand!

He commented to my American friend, "You are writing my name with your left hand!"  The American answered, "Yes, I am left-handed."  This irrelevant western rationalist detail did not make sense to his Maasai friend!

The Maasai exclaimed again to the American, "But you are writing my name!"  Then the left-handed writer realized something was amiss, they stopped and discussed the matter, worked it out, and each rose to a new level of cross-cultural appreciation!

The Signals We Send
Human gestures vary extensively. An observer can collect quite a range! Observe this aspect of social culture and master the subtle meanings involved. The signals we send with gestures are powerful.


This new article replaces an earlier article of the same title.
This new article posted 05 April 2005
See the related new article "Greetings"

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright Orville Boyd Jenkins 2005
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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