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Body Language & Insulting your Students

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No pointing fingers, please!

As a teacher, possibly in a foreign country, you should be aware of the Body Language and Gestures of your host country so that you don’t inadvertently insult your students.

To take an example, in America and the UK giving a thumbs up sign means approval or “well done”. In Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Sardinia though it is an obscene gesture and making it in the classroom or public will cause a lot of problems.

So, it is wise to do some homework about your host country and find out what you can – and cannot – do to stay out of trouble.

Gestures to Avoid

Let’s begin with some general gestures to avoid; these are commonly considered offensive in many countries:

  • pointing to someone with your finger
  • beckoning to someone; this implies the person you are beckoning to is lower status than you
  • using your left hand to shake or touch
  • public displays of affection
  • chewing food with your mouth open
  • showing the sole of your shoe or foot

* In 2007 Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at then President Bush Jr during a press conference. When it happened many in the West did not understand the deeper significance, but in many Arabic countries it is offensive to show the sole of one’s foot or shoe and throwing or hitting someone with a shoe is extremely offensive.

But back to you, this is a good list to begin with if you are going abroad to teach; however when you’re in a country do ask around and check things out before attempting to use teaching gestures in class!

  • Afghanistan‏‎: thumbs up
  • Asia: pointing; body contact
  • Austria‏‎: hands on the lap whilst eating
  • Belgium‏‎: pointing with the index finger; hands in pockets whilst speaking; blowing your nose or yawning in public
  • Czech Republic‏‎: elbows on table
  • Finland: leaving food on the plate; yawning in public; standing with arms folded
  • France‏‎: chewing gum, yawning or scratching in public; snapping the fingers of both hands
  • Germany‏‎: hands in pocket; chewing gum
  • Greece‏‎: open hand palm pushed towards someone; the OK sign of thumb/forefinger
  • Guatemala: clasping or holding hands together
  • Hungary‏‎: “clinking glasses” to say cheers
  • Iran‏‎: thumbs up; blowing your nose in public; slouching in a chair; showing the sole of the shoe
  • Ireland‏‎: not buying a round of drinks when it’s your turn!
  • Japan: four fingers pointing; shows of public emotion; standing with open mouth; crooking finger (“come here”)
  • Latin America: demonstrating size using two fingers
  • Netherlands: leaving a meal in the middle to go to the toilet
  • Nigeria: thumbs up
  • Pakistan: a single closed fist; eating with the left hand
  • Philippines: crooked, beckoning finger
  • Poland‏‎: chewing gum
  • Sardinia: thumbs up
  • Saudi Arabia‏‎: bare body parts
  • Sweden: putting on your coat before you leave a host’s house
  • Switzerland: slouching
  • Thailand‏‎: touching another person’s head; touching the foot; pointing the foot at someone
  • Turkey‏‎: crossing your arms whilst talking; showing the sole of your shoe; the OK sign of thumb/forefinger
  • United Kingdom: two fingers in the shape of a V, palm in; jumping the queue
  • Vietnam: crossing fingers; unlike some countries, crossing your arms is given as a sign of respect

These, of course, are just a few. Research well wherever you go to avoid offending anyone and, possibly, getting yourself in trouble.

Counter-Gestures

On the other side of the coin, sometimes you will receive a gesture which you think is rude but which is, in fact, quite innocent.

  • Vietnam: the “middle finger” is used only for counting, not for insulting

Gestures to Use

Almost universal and perhaps the most useful and least misunderstood gesture is the smile. Use it often and it will make your life easier and more pleasant.

However, in some cultures it is a mark of frivolity or a show of sadness or anger.

Which means that you can never be too careful to learn about gestures!

Useful Links

Gestures in Teaching English – how to use gestures properly in TEFL!

Bush Shoe-ing Worst Arab Insult – a BBC article on the throwing on a shoe at President Bush and the cultural significance of it.

Gestures in Vietnam – a blog article on the subject

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