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How many fingers do you see?

Staff writer ▼ | October 2, 2009
A study by the University of Alberta's Elena Nicoladis and Simone Pika from the University of Manchester shows that gestures in a foreign land may have unwilling consequences.
Two fingers
Two fingersA study by the University of Alberta's Elena Nicoladis and Simone Pika from the University of Manchester shows that gestures in a foreign land may have unwilling consequences.


The article, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examines cultural differences in the use of hand gestures that could lead to miscommunications or misunderstandings. Nicoladis drew her interest for the subject from her own lost-in-digital translation experience while riding on Berlin's transit system.

"I asked for directions on the U-Bahn to an older woman and she told me to get off in four stops, so I said, 'ja, vier' and held up my four fingers," she said. "She went off on a tirade saying 'nein, nein, vier' and held up the conventional gesture (using her thumb and three fingers)." The differentiation is because, in Germany for instance, the thumb is automatically counted as a numerical value. Thus, Nicoladis was showing five digits instead of four.

This important little piece of advice could have also saved the life of an unlucky British spy in Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds; in which a character, an English army officer posing as a German SS captain, is exposed when he orders drinks without using his thumb in the count. He and his colleagues are shot for his faux pas.

Nicoladis and colleagues studied one and two-hand counting gestures and cultural differences between Germans and French and English Canadians. While the majority of Germans use their thumb to begin to sequentially count, the majority of Canadians, both French and English, use their index finger as the numerical kick-off point when counting with their hands.

While seasoned travellers will often research local customs and social practices to acclimatize themselves to life in their destination of choice, Nicoladis urges anyone travelling to a foreign country to brush up on their hand signs for fear of possibly embarrassing cultural situations, or even an exorbitant bar tab at the end of the night.

Contributed by: Joana Rodeiro


 

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