You are on page 1of 12

Gestures and body language in American culture

American people do not like too little space between themselves and their speaking

partners and they do not like to touch or being touched while having conversation. Even if
they are on public programmes, at sporting events or in the theatre, cinema, they usually slide
into a crowded aisle while facing the people.

They use the frequent gesture of shaking hands when at greeting. They learn this

gesture at a very young age and very often use it.

While greeting or talking they look into their partners eyes directly. They learn that

the opposite means weakness or shyness and they do not want to show themselves like this.

They often raise their arm and waggle it back and forth. It is sign of saying hello or

goodbye or if they want to get someones attention. They do the same by raising their index
finger with a curling motion and it tells the other to come closer.

V shape with their index and middle fingers: show victory or peace. When making the

V sign with the index and middle finger be careful how the hand is positioned. If the palm is
turned inward, the gesture won't be appreciated in Britain. It might be because during the
battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, British archers who were captured by their French
enemies had those fingers injured, so they could not utilize their bows and arrows. The men
who survived the battle with no injuries showed these fingers to the French as a way of
cursing them in a non-verbal manner )
During the Second World War Winston Churchill popularised its use as a "Victory" sign (for
V as in victory) initially with palm inwards and later in the war palm outwards. In the United
States of America, with the palm outwards and inward as well is also used to mean "Peace.
This meaning became popular during the peace movement of the 1960s. (hippies used it).

If we see Americans who form a circle with their thumb and index finger, they refer to

something good, this signal means OK, yes or fine. It has several meanings in many
countries. In Japan, after purchasing something you would be telling the sales clerk that you
would like your change in coins. In France, the meaning is negative but not insulting; it
simply means "zero" or "worthless."

There is another sign with the same meaning, and for that, people have to close their

fist and rise up their thumb. The origin of this gesture goes back to the Roman age when
gladiator duals were so popular. The fighting men were adjudged by this signal: if the
imperator showed thumb up, it meant that the gladiator might survive. In the opposite case, if
he showed his thumb down, the fighter had to die, he did not get the act of grace. In 1997,
Professor Anthony Philip Corbeill from Kansas concluded that the thumbs up actually meant,
"kill him," basing his assertion on a study of hundreds of ancient artworks. The crowds would
point their thumbs "up", the thumb pointing to the throat which held a similar meaning to
moving ones thumb across their throat. Thus, the "thumbs up" was an approval of the
gladiator's request to kill his beaten oppose.

Another generally used gesture is whistling, which is quite often used at sport events,

performances or watching a pretty woman in the street.

Making a circular motion near the temple or ear is the next gesture, and it is used it to

express that somebody is crazy.


Comparison (English and Hungarian)
- shaking hand is also accepted and used in Europe. European people use the direct eye
contact, too.
- Waving has a different meaning in Europe. It means no in most of the cases because for
waving there is another signal, bobbing the hand up and down at the wrist. Beckoning is
also different in Europe: European people raise their arm and make a scratching motion with
their fingers.
- English people do not use V for victory signal because showing your palm toward
somebodys face is a very rude gesture.
- The OK gesture means the same in England and Hungary, too, and they use the next one for
the same meaning: the thumbs up.
- whistling is a rather negative gesture in Europe. It is often used as a signal of disapproval
mainly at public events.

There are universal hand gestures, which are used by American people, too. These are

the following ones: when people press their palms together, rest their head on the back of their
hand, and close their eyes, it symbolises tiredness.

The last one in this category is rubbing the hands together which means that the person

is cold or impatient anticipation.

Head-gestures in America.

- Scratching the head means three different things: thinking, being confused or sceptical.
- Winking can be flirtatious or can mean sharing a secret.
- eyebrow flashing can also be a flirtatious gesture by men. If somebody rolls his eyes,
probably he is incredulous or amazed by something.
- If somebody disgusts or can smell something stinky, he wrinkles his nose or holds it with his
thumb and index finger.
- By voice giving, they can express two things: the first one, whistling has already been
mentioned earlier, it can mean approval, and on the other hand, hissing and booing means
disapproval. The next one, yawning means tiredness or boredom.
- Sticking out the tongue is a quiet and impolite gesture, and means derision. Stroking the chin
or tapping the head with the index finger is the signal of thinking and contemplation.
- Legs and feet make another category of gestures. The first one is crossing the legs when a
person is sitting. If the person is a male, he crosses his legs at the ankles or rarely at the knees.
Females cross their legs at their knees and curl the upper foot around the calf of the lower leg.
- While standing, people can have an aggressive, masculine stance if their legs are in wide
distance, or a feminine stance standing with feet apart in a narrow distance. There is another
type of standing which is quite rare, with military exhibiting respect with heels together.

American gestures made with arms, hands, and fingers.

They can express a goal, victory or surrender with upraised arms and disagree with

folded arms.

If they are angry or impatient, they stand with hand of the hips bowed outward but

they applaud if they appreciate something or praise.

Another gesture for showing anger of opposition is shaking the fist.

High five means congratulations.

There are too aggressive hand gestures. The hand to the throat, which means choking.

The other one is the hand cutting across the throat, which expresses suicide.

If they point at something or somebody, they extend their hand with their index finger.

They use their index finger for negation, too. They do it by waggling the index finger back
and forth.

They cross their fingers to wish good luck and snap their fingers if they want to get

someones attention or if they listen to music.

3.3 Gestures and body language in English culture

Thereinafter, I am going to write about English gestures.


We are all individuals who, on the one hand, wish to maintain our private space around
ourselves. On the other hand, we are members of a society who need to interact with the
world around us and therefore let others invade our space. The size of this personal area
seems to vary from culture to culture, from individual to individual. Overall, English people
tend to prefer having a longer distance between themselves and others, both physically and
mentally. They do not often come close, touch or hug. If they kiss, they do it on one cheek
only. Because of this need for bigger personal space, politeness in English culture plays a very
important role and is well established in the language both body and verbal (this is why you
can hear English people say sorry and thank you so often). The use of present and past in
requests, for instance, refers to social distance rather than distance in time (the bigger the
distance between you and the other person, the more likely it is that in speech the past
tense is used to indicate that growing space).
Gestures are the part of body language, which is more subdued in England you
should try to avoid pointing and gesticulating. People restrain from frantic gestures, especially
in formal situations. They, however, tend to smile a lot which is considered polite and friendly
behaviour.
The following is a description of the most common gestures in England. It is worth
keeping it in mind, however, that using gestures appropriately is as difficult as using slang.
Foreigners are therefore better off if they understand gestures but avoid using them.
Many English people use their fingers differently when they count. They usually start
with their little finger and work towards the thumb. Some people may go from their index
finger to the little finger and then the thumb.

They do not only count in a different way than other nations, but show numbers
differently, too. For example, when you mean that you have one thing e.g. a pint of beer in a
pub, you indicate it by the forefinger. If you want to show two, you do it by the forefinger and
middle finger held up.

The next signal has already been mentioned among American gestures and it is the
signal of OK. When you want to indicate that something is very good, OK, you move your
arm forward with your thumb up and the rest of the hand clenched. If you want to express
something much better, they have a signal for excellence, too. The index finger and the thumb
forming a circle and the palm facing outwards and making a slight motion outwards with your
hand can show it.

If you are pleased because you have done something, e.g. scored in a game, got a good
mark at school etc. then you say Gimme five! and you reach upwards and away from you
and slap hands with your buddy. (Though, it comes from America.)

You can also show the opposite of this, so if you mean that something is not good, not
OK, you turn your thumb down.

If you want to show that something is awful or disgusting, you make a motion, which
looks as if you were going to make yourself vomit: you move your index and middle finger
held together towards your open mouth meaning, It's so horrible that it makes me want to
puke.

The next sign exists in America, too, and it is the victory sign. The index finger gives
it, the middle finger held apart with the palm facing outwards, and the rest of the hand is
clenched.

They also use the reverse of the victory sign with the palm facing inwards; however, it
is an obscene gesture, which means, go away, get lost, or bugger off.

Another offensive gesture often used by drivers and musicians is when you raise
your middle finger with the palm facing inwards and the rest of the hand clenched.

If you want to hitchhike, you stretch your arm out to the side with your thumb raised
and the rest of the hand clenched. Hitchhikers also often have a sign saying what their
destination is.

If you wish good luck, you say I'll keep my fingers crossed (for you), Keep your
fingers crossed or simply Fingers crossed and you cross your middle finger over your
forefinger. Some people do not cross fingers on both hands because it is considered unlucky.

If you want to show in an argument or discussion that you have scored a point over
your opponent, then you lick your finger and make a downward stroke in the air in front of
your face.

If you mean that somebody talks a lot and is a chatterbox, you make a quacking
motion with your hand: you hold your fingers straight and together with the middle fingers
tapping your thumb.

If you put your hands by your head and hold up your index and middle fingers and
bend them twice, as if you were drawing a pair of inverted commas in the air, it means being
sarcastic. For example, when you say Oh, you're so good and do this signal when you utter
the word good, the gesture changes good to its opposite. It is a widely spread gesture,
Hungarian people also use it.

When you want to say that someone is nosy, that is too curious for his or her own
good; you touch the tip of your nose with your forefingers.

In the case if you have a secret, which you do not want to tell or mean, It's none of
your business, and then you tap the side of your nose with your forefinger.

The next gesture is also quite widespread. When you wave goodbye, you shake your
hand from side to side.

The signal for money is rather common, too. If you talk about money and would like
to show it, you sweep your thumb across the other four fingers, usually starting from the little
finger.

If you want to indicate that somebody is thin, you bring the palms of your hands
facing each other closer and closer and move them down vertically to the waistline.