Talk to the hand

A friend of mine told me a few days ago, “your hand gestures are much more expressive when you’re speaking English than when you’re speaking Dutch”. I’m still contemplating this observation a few days later. My personal theory is that it’s because I learned most of my English when I went to the United States at age 17 as a High School exchange student.

In some cultures it’s much more common to emphasise what you’re saying by using a lot of hand gestures. We all know the stereotypes of, for example, Italians waving their hands around like crazy people when they’re talking. Other cultures are not very likely at all to use hand gestures and it’s seen as excessive to use your hands to make a point. In terms of hand gestures, Americans tend to be more expressive than Dutch people in general. So apparently when I learned my English in the US, I also picked up the hand gestures that go along with the language.

However, the interesting thing about hand gestures is not so much about whether – or how elaborately – people use them, but the meaning they convey. And I don’t mean the meaning of the actual gesture. Of course this also differs across cultures, the OK gesture means something entirely different in the US than it does in Brazil (look it up if you’re curious), and using a familiar gesture in an unfamiliar place can lead to hilarious (or embarrassing) misunderstandings. But what I think is really interesting is that the intensity of the gestures you use also influence how seriously you are taken. When I was working as an exchange coordinator I once had an Italian student in my office that was really upset about something. Or at least, he seemed very upset to me as he was using wild gestures to make his point. To a Dutch person, generally a lot more subdued in terms of gestures, this seems excessive. So it must be a huge problem! I then tried to calm him down by saying things like “it’s okay, we’ll fix it, just relax”, using soothing language and gestures. This made the student think I wasn’t taking his issue seriously, as my reaction was too calm. Basically, when an Italian comes to you and makes big gestures, you make big gestures back to make sure he/she feels like you’re on the same page. Which is probably the same mechanism that taught me to use American gestures along with my American English.

Can you think of any situations in which a difference in hand gestures – or how much you’re supposed to use them – led to any interesting misunderstandings?

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