Nonverbal Communication

I have previously said on the blog that you can get by nearly anywhere in the world using just English, but of course that’s not wholly accurate–yes, you can get by, but you’ll still find yourself in situations where you or a local will want to say something that the other will not be able to understand. Fortunately, for those instances, there are unlimited possibilities in circumlocution and pantomime, in order to communicate. I thought that it might be fun to note some of the more amusing examples of nonverbal communication that we have encountered on our travels–if you have any you’ve enjoyed, be sure to add them as comments.

The Moose Call. Traveling in Muslim countries, one often (but perhaps not as often as one might think) runs into people’s prayer schedules. Our passenger train, in Iran, stopped for the evening prayer so that people could alight, properly orient themselves, and pray. We have had buses and share taxis do the same, although not as often as we might have thought. Or, a shop may be unattended for a few minutes, while the proprietor or employee is praying. In order to convey to us, the foreign infidels, what exactly is going on–why the bus is stopping or why the counter is empty–locals will raise two hands, palms open, to the sides of their heads, sometimes with their thumbs in or very near their ears, and make a small bowing gesture. Of course, this is intended to mimic the act of bowing for prayer, but to us it looks like a moose imitation, which is why we call it the moose call. It can also be used to find a nearby mosque.

Anticlerical Gestures of Iran. Discontent with Iran’s government, or more generally Iran’s system of government, is rife in Iran, and we encountered several different gestures used to mock or criticize the religious hierarchy used by Iranians eager to communicate their grievances to us. The most common was a hand tracing an imaginary turban on one’s head, a symbol for the theocratic elite of the country. Repeatedly, people would make the gesture, sometimes accompanied by the other hand stroking an imaginary beard, when trying to signify that it is the mullahs who have control and are mismanaging the country and restricting freedoms. The second was the throat-cutting gesture, hand across the neck, which was used surprisingly often not only to describe what would happen to you if you tried to exercise a freedom that was not provided under local law, but also as a general symbol for the government–nowhere else have we seen people associate their government so closely and so repeatedly with execution/murder. One person told us that the only thing stopping the Islamic government from restoring stoning as a form of punishment is international pressure. (We were also once given the throat-cutting gesture as a sort of threat in Nizwa, Oman–surprising given the highly respectful and hospitable treatment we otherwise got from the Omanis.)

Cluck of Approval. We first noticed this from our hoteliers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, who would click their tongue against the roof of their mouth to signify approval, in our case appreciation of our photographs. Once we noticed it there, we heard it over and over again, particularly in Turkic regions from Turkey to Xinjiang, China.

Picture Please. People around the world vary an incredible amount from wanting their pictures taken to not wanting their pictures taken. In parts of West and North Africa, people can act like you’re trying to steal their soul; in Turkic countries and India, people will chase you for a photo. Especially in the Subcontinent, but elsewhere too, we frequently saw an odd gesture for “Take a picture of me, please”–something like a person looking through an imaginary pair of binoculars formed by their thumbs and pointer fingers.

Mixing Tea. Mauritania and Morocco (and the Tuareg parts of Mali) have a tea tradition that is somewhat peculiar, especially in the way that it is prepared. The tea leaves are boiled on a fire for a very long time, and then sugar is mixed in by pouring the tea back and forth from the pot to a glass, until long after the tea is blended, frothy and ready to drink. In those countries, this mixing gesture–that of pouring a liquid between two vessels repeatedly–was used to indicate tea (whether we would like to drink tea, that someone is about to make tea, etc.).

Sex. There is of course no shortage of hand and other gestures that one can use to mean having sex, but we find that the most common one–used all around the world from an Uzbek explaining Ramadan’s many restrictions to a Moroccan boy apparently selling sex services (!)–is a closed fist pounding the air, with the thumb toward the body (so that it’s somewhat different from the usual masturbation gesture).

Diving Gestures. We learned to dive a couple of years ago before a trip to the island republic of Palau, and now occasionally use diving gestures–a standardized system of underwater and surface communication for when words are not an option–to communicate with each other nonverbally. We find the “surface” versions of the “ok” and “not ok” gestures (arms forming a large circle or a large “X,” respectively, above the head) quite handy when we are distant from each other, because they are highly visible from far away. Diving gestures also constitute a nonverbal language that people around us are not likely to understand.

Wind-Induced Headache. This is a rather odd one that we encountered in Ethiopia. Although it can get quite warm in parts of Ethiopia, locals do not like to open windows on buses because they seem to believe that the wind pressure on their ears causes some sort of pain or headache. If you try to open a window, they will ask you to close it by placing the palms of their hands a couple of inches from each ear and shaking them a bit.

Hunger. Now, you’d think that putting your hands on your stomach or putting imaginary food into your mouth would be a pretty simple and effective way to demonstrate hunger, right? It’s certainly worked for us in the past, but when we were in Khiva, Uzbekistan in 2008, a cab driver took us not to a restaurant but to a clinic, thinking that we had gotten some sort of food poisoning! Imagine our confusion and then amuseument when we pulled up to an unmarked building we thought would be a restaurant and all of the servers were wearing white hopsital coats.

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