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Culture —– Hand Gestures (gestos)

by Brandi

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June 1st, 2009

Today we are going to cover a particular Latin hand gesture that is important to know. Some of you may be disappointed if you wanted to learn how to do a gesture involving a particular “middle” finger to show anger. Sorry—remember, this is a family-friendly blog. (By the way, that middle finger sign means nothing to native Spanish speakers unless they have lived in the United States.)

The gesture I am going to teach you this week is one that, if done incorrectly, can get you in a lot of trouble. In the United States, and most likely other English speaking countries (feedback requested please), if you want to ask someone to “come here” using hand gestures, you put out your hand, palm facing up, and move your index finger in and out two or three times.

If you make this same gesture to a Latin person from certain areas of Latin America, it can have a totally different meaning. It means that you are VERY romantically interested in them and it is acknowledged as a solicitation. You can imagine the problems you could get into if you didn’t know the Latin meaning of this common American hand gesture.

The way to say “come here” in Spanish, using a hand gesture, is to put your palm face down and move all four fingers in and out (together) two or three times. So for example, the “palm up-one finger-American gesture” is completely different than the “palm down-four finger-Latin American gesture”. Now that you know the difference, remember to avoid confusing the two gestures (unless you’re looking for trouble)!

To illustrate the problems you can get into if you make the wrong gesture, I’d like to share the following short story:

As I was teaching Spanish at a major US company, the managers I was teaching shared the following experience: There was a Latin woman at their company who didn’t speak very much English. This woman had accused a man at the company of sexual harassment. A company hearing was held to assess the situation which involved the managers, the woman, the accused man, and an interpreter.

There was a very serious tone in the room as the woman was asked to explain the charge. After a few moments of explanation, the interpreter began to laugh hysterically. The managers thought this was very inappropriate and asked him to explain why he was laughing.

The interpreter continued on to explain what the woman had told him. He said that the accused man needed the woman to go with him for a job-related activity. He had gestured for her to come over to him, as most Americans do, with the palm up and moving the index finger in and out. The woman then told the interpreter that the accused man had made several unwanted solicitations. When the woman told this to the interpreter, he realized that this was a big cultural misunderstanding and he began to laugh. Both cultural gestures were then explained to all parties and the situation resolved peacefully.

The moral of the story: If you want to signal for someone to “come here” in Latin America, put your palm down instead of up, and use four fingers instead of one, or you may find you’ll get yourself into muchos problemas!

If you have visited different parts of the world and have seen some different hand gestures (clean ones please), please share your thoughts!

Sneak peek at next week: More hand gestures – The Thief Sign

¡Que tengan una buena semana! (Have a great week!)
David S. Clark — President / Director

Click here to learn Spanish.

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2 Responses

  1. Bonny says:

    The middle finger is understood very well here in South America, as the American “come here”. The “palm up-one finger-American gesture” can’t be interpreted as sexual hand gesture. Maybe in a specific culture.
    Los gestos a los que usted hace referencia son universales o se han universalizado gracias al cine, por ejemplo. Es un error la generalizaciónn “Latinoamérica” como un todo, del mismo modo que es un error generalizar a la América anglófona. Acaso todo es igual en USA y Canadá? Ya de por sí es un error generalizar en un todo a las diferentes culturas y subculturas que conforman un único país.

  2. Maritza says:

    I agree with Bonny. I am from Peru, which is located in South America,and is part of Latin America. I have communicated very well with many Latin Americans from other countries. I have never ever seen or heard of asking someone to “come here” with the palm down and moving four fingers. Just because you saw one person from Latin America do that, you cannot generalize that as a universal gesture for all Latin Americans.
    The palm up,bending all fingers, is the gesture to “come here”,same as in the US. The palm up, with one finger moving, is also understood as “come here”. It is a little more informal,though. It could be understood as flirtatious, but in no way as sexual harassment. Either this woman was really uptight and trying to cause trouble, or there is more to this story. Maybe his entire body language and the fact that he kept asking her out made her feel uncomfortable.

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