How’s your Nepali? Not too hot? Well, never mind – spoken languages makeup but a fraction of the way we communicate, and some minds just weren’t built to absorb them. If you find that you’re fortunate enough to spend a lot of time travelling, you’ll discover that listening and observing is half the battle when it comes to being involved with the world around you. Whatever forgettable phrases they may print in the guidebooks are rarely comparable to the way the locals of any given area communicate with each other.
Hand gestures are a great way into a local culture, especially if words aren’t your strong point. To take that Nepalese example, you’ll get a lot further greeting locals with a palms-together gesture than a mumbled ‘namastē’ and a vague wave. You’ll also discover that saying ‘no’ – or being told it – involves a swiveling wrist, rather than a shaking head. Likewise, the Japanese have a specific gesture – arms crossed diagonally across the chest with hands open – to indicate that something is just not allowed.
Italy, though, is arguably the most famously gesture-oriented destination, and you can get a long way with no words at all – as long as you’re confident in the nuances between the hand movements. Running your finger into your cheek is a good start for tourists – it’s a way to show you appreciate the food. Other gestures – the notorious chin swipe (“I don’t give a damn”), for example – tend to be less positive, but that’s all part of the package of getting into a meaningful conversation with your new friends.
For more tips on how to engage with other cultures without memorizing the phrasebook, check out this handy new infographic, with some of the most helpful/friendly/no-nonsense hand gestures that those on the inside use as second nature.
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