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Giving the finger to universal gestures

Gestures are universal. When we think of gestures we think of something that transcends culture - it’s how we communicate with cafe owners who don’t speak our language, or with lost tourists. Children will make meaningful gestures before they can put words together. And like our native language, we learn how to gesture without ever being taught.

Yet for all of the apparent universality of gestures, they are deeply linked to the language we speak, and the culture we live in. The gestures we use can be powerful because they are meaningful, but when we don’t know the meaning, then that power can be, literally, in the wrong hands.

One of my favourite examples of the power of gestures can be traced to the Second World War. The Allied Forces instituted the Victory “V” gesture, that by an interesting twist of semantic fate, has been co-opted by the peace movement and is widely known as the “peace sign.” All over Europe the Allies and their supporters adopted the victory sign, performed by making a fist and raising the index and middle finger with the palm either facing forwards or backwards.

While the position of the palm made no difference in most of Europe, it made a big difference in the UK. For people in the UK (and Commonwealth countries such as Australia) making a V with the palm facing backwards is a grave insult equal to sticking up one’s middle finger (digitus impudicus, as it was known in Roman times). Known as “the finger,” “the two finger salute” or the “bow finger” this gesture is an insult used only by a limited group. 

There are various photographs of Winston Churchill, wartime Prime Minister England, giving the Victory sign, but with his palm facing backwards. Some argue that his aristocratic background meant that he was unaware of the primary meaning of that gesture in his home country and was just performing it like many other Europeans. The more common explanation of Churchill’s apparent faux pas is that he was all too aware of the meaning of his action and, to garner support from the English, performed the action to mean not only “Victory over the Germans” but also “Let’s stick it up the Germans.” The ambiguity allowed Churchill to insult the enemy without their being aware of it.

This confusion over the use of the V sign for those not in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand still continues. When George Bush Sr. visited Australia in 1992 he attempted to be friendly to a bunch of protesters in Canberra by giving the Peace sign out of his limo. Unfortunately he presented with the palm facing forwards and probably did a lot more damage than if he just left his hand inside the vehicle.

George Bush Sr. and the majority of Australians are native speakers of English. Yet even a common language does not ensure a common understanding when it comes to gestures. The tendency to think of gestures as spontaneous and natural means that they are so often neglected when being instructed in the ways of a second language (or even a different cultural group in your own language). As the examples above illustrate, it is certainly worth teaching people about the gestures in different languages and cultures, lest the desire to spread peace be mistaken for an invocation to anything but.

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