Lost in Nonverbal Translation

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

This is the second of our four-way guest posts on NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches, where I and three other expat bloggers join together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other's blogs. We expat bloggers are Linda at adventuresinexpatland.com (North - Netherlands), myself at insearchofalifelessordinary.com (South - Australia), Erica at expatriababy.com (East - Japan), and Maria at Iwasanexpatwife.com (West - Canada).

The theme for this month's round of guest posting is how different cultures physically interact and today's guest post is by Maria, who is a Canadian repatriate living back in Canada and guest blogging on her non-verbal experiences as an expat in Singapore and France. You also read my own NSEW guest post over at Maria's site, titled Separated by more than just water, which looks at my experiences of moving from Canada to Australia, and the differences in physical interaction that I found upon arriving in Sydney.

Without further ado, here's Maria's guest post where she gets Lost in Nonverbal Translation...

The man behind the counter glared at me as he took my money, muttering something in a language I’m glad I didn’t understand. I’d only been in Singapore a week and I’d already learned that customer service varied wildly from obsequious to nonexistent, depending on the store. This was the first time a salesperson had looked like he wanted to spit at me though.

“Nice guy,” I commented once we were outside the store.

My 6-year-old shook her head at me in despair. “Mommy,” she said sorrowfully, “you did it again.”

As a very wise man once said: “d’oh!” Despite clear instructions from my cross-cultural trainer and repeated reminders by my children, I’d once again committed the inexcusable faux pas of handing money to someone with my left hand.

Overcoming four decades of social conditioning in a week is no easy task. I’d spent my entire life using whichever hand was more convenient, blissfully unaware that in many parts of the world, the left is reserved for post-toilet hygiene. Touching people or handing them objects with the “unclean” hand is simply not done. Except, it seemed, by me.

Behaviours such as gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions are known as kinesics, and I was shocked to discover they aren’t universal. In fact, body language is greatly influenced by culture. Not knowing the norms (or in my case, knowing them but not internalising them) can lead to a whole lotta grief.

Gestures are particularly problematic, since what is commonplace in one culture can be wickedly obscene in another. I’ll give you an example that led to shocked headlines in Norway back in 2005. At the inauguration celebration of US President George W. Bush, first daughter Jenna Bush gave a shout-out to her Texan roots by flashing the University of Texas “Hook ‘em horns” sign: folding the middle two fingers into the palm and extending the thumb, index and pinkie fingers. It’s an innocent gesture in the US, but not in Norway, where it’s interpreted as the sign of Satan. But there’s more: In Italy, it’s the symbol for a cuckolded husband; in various parts of Africa, it’s a curse. Not quite the carefree gesture of collegial support Ms. Bush had intended!

When I left Singapore and moved to France, I thought learning French would be my biggest issue. I soon found out that spoken language is only part of the puzzle. The nonverbal aspects of communication tripped me up time and time again.

On my first visit to the local patisserie (pastry shop), I was overwhelmed by the wanton display of artery-clogging deliciousness for sale. The lady behind the counter good-naturedly taught me the name of each confection, and when she got to le pain chocolat (literally, “chocolate bread”), I held up my hands in surrender (Hello, my name is Maria, and I’m a chocoholic).

“That’s what I want,” I said, surreptitiously wiping away a bit of runaway drool.

“How many?” she asked. I absently held up my index and middle fingers, my attention already wandering to the tarte aux pommes that was begging me to take it home.

When I opened the bag later I was surprised to find three pains instead of two, but shrugged philosophically. We’re talking about French pastries filled with chocolate - there’s really no such thing as “too many.” Still, the next time I got my fix (and yes, it very quickly became a habit), I stopped the nice lady before she could put the third pain au chocolat in the bag. “I only want two,” I said apologetically. She gave me one of those “why didn’t you say so?” looks, which mystified me completely. I’d held up two fingers, after all.

“The third was implied,” my friend Sylvie told me when I asked her, in my halting French, why the good people of Bordeaux were unable to count. It turns out that counting - or at least, counting on one’s fingers - isn’t as straightforward as I’d assumed. In fact, it varies widely around the world. Whereas I count to five by holding up my index finger, middle finger, ring finger, pinkie, and thumb, the French begin with the thumb and end with the pinkie. In a classic case of miscommunication, the woman at the patisserie assumed I was asking for three pastries because the fingers I held up were #2 and #3 on the French finger-counting scale. My pastry order was lost in nonverbal translation.

Since repatriating four years ago, I’ve reverted to Canadian-style counting. I’d love to return to France for a visit, and if I do find myself in a French patisserie some day, I won’t bother worrying about which finger to start counting with: One look at those exquisite pains au chocolat, and you can bet all ten fingers will be standing to attention.

What differences in physical interaction have you experienced during life overseas?

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches
Image: digitalart portfolio 2280 freedigitalphotos.net


linda@adventuresinexpatland.com said... Add Reply

I recall being taught to 'finger count' in my high school French class and thinking it was the most exotic thing I'd ever seen! Here in The Netherlands eggs come 10 to a carton, not the dozen (12) we're expecting in the US. Vive la difference!

Maria Foley said... Add Reply

In Mexico I saw people begin with the pinkie and end with the thumb. And in China it's a little more complicated — the signs for 1-5 are the same as they are in North America, but 6-10 involve gestures that are more stylized, reminiscent of American Sign Language. Vive la difference indeed!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

My expat experiences have, for the most part, been in English-speaking countries where there are more similarities in cultural interactions than differences. And any differences I have experienced generally tend to be more subtle or related to the perception of 'being a man in public' in that particular country.

That said, I spent time in France and the kissing thing was a surprise. Grown men in their twenties and thirties would stop and cross the road to kiss their male friends on both cheeks in full public view by way of saying 'hello'.

To me, an Englishman and a reserved one in public, this was strange to say the least. I was desperate for a big ole hearty handshake and perhaps a pat on the back. Instead, I got two kisses.

I never did get used to this form of interaction.

Great post, Maria.

Maria Foley said... Add Reply

Thanks, Russell. And the kissing thing stymied me in France, too. Interesting that both Linda (American) and Erica (Canadian) have mentioned kissing in their NSEW posts today — I sense a theme!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

I sense that too! Aussies and Englanders aren't necessarily big on the kissing thing so that could have been a hard one for me to write about :) Just reading Linda's post now...

erica @ expatriababy said... Add Reply

Oh the counting! I've had more than a few mixups with this. For example, in China, I asked for 3 pieces of fruit, and was given 8 (I think). I flashed the French 3 (thumb, index, middle) which was read as an eight. The Japanese have a variation on the Chinese finger counting (which is really a beautiful little puzzle), but it is a bit easier for a numberphobe like me to grasp - digits greater than 5 are indicated by the right hand held up, all 5 fingers together, then touch your palm with the appropriate number of fingers from the left hand (i.e. palm + 3 fingers = 8).

John Luth said... Add Reply

Men openly holding hands with men and arms suggestively draped on one another with absolutely no undertones regarding one's sexuality. That's just another day around the office in India. As an American it's definitely strange at first, but it's just a sign of friendship. I've only been asked to join in the tradition once (and that was just for a picture with a stranger at Pushkar, I was too surprised to do anything but stand there holding his hand) but the longer you stay here, the more it just becomes part of the way it is. So much so that it's usually one of the first things that (typically) male visitors from the states notice and I have to remind myself that it's not something you see everyday at home.

And then there's the head waggle, which has the same meaning as an affirmative nod but resembles more what you might see from a bobblehead. Initially, as the receiver of the waggle, you have no idea what the person means and generally assume they don't understand (it's typically more of a side-to-side shake), but again you adapt, learn, and (at least in my case) try not to do the waggle yourself.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hey Erica - all this counting is making me dizzy. I don't know how you remember the many codes and formulae. I struggle with the basic etiquette for simply going to someone's house for dinner. I must be a lousy expat deep down :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hey John - thanks for your comments on the site and this blog post. I've read Shantaram (I took it hiking in Nepal - big mistake, that thing weighed my backpack down by about 5 kilos!) and, through the 900 or so pages of that epic book, learner much about the head waggling of Indians. Fascinating stuff. I'm sure it would completely throw me at the start but you'd hope to pick it up eventually.

I had never heard of the 'holding hands' interaction in India. I guess that would feel strange at first but, again, if the people in your local environment are all holding hands, you'd more likely stand out by not doing so.

Hope you're continuing to enjoy your adventures on the subcontinent.

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