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Once upon a time there was a great flood, and involved in this flood were two creatures, a monkey and a fish. The monkey, being agile and experienced, was lucky enough to scramble up a tree and escape the raging waters. As he looked down from his safe perch, however, he saw the poor fish struggling against the swift current. With the best of intentions, he reached down and lifted the fish from the water… the result was inevitable.

From the monkey’s perspective, the best thing he could do to help the fish was to get it out of the water; after all that’s what saved the monkey. Like the monkey, we often think our way of doing things is the normal or best or right way to do things.

As difficult as it may be to understand another person’s political views, it can be much more difficult to understand cultural backgrounds that are different from our own. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, we are bound to miscommunicate with others if we don’t understand basic cultural dimensions and how much culture really matters.

Operating from a global mindset is transformational.   In simple terms, think of it as seeing others as who they are… accepting that some of us are monkeys and others are fish.

And how do you develop a global mindset? It begins with culture.

Culture reflects a way of life for a group of people: the arts, beliefs, laws, morals, customs, habits, symbols, institutions, and transmitted behavior patterns—including styles of communication—of a community or population. Culture is determined by history, geography and climate and influences how people feel, look, think and act. Culture helps determine our beliefs, and affects our behavior.

Some of those behaviors have to do with how we stand in proximity to one another, our posture, our handshakes (or lack of) and our hand gestures. What is proper in one culture is not only improper in another culture, it could be insulting. As we navigate these multicultural waters with clients and colleagues from other nations and backgrounds, keep the following hand gesture differences in mind.

  • The “A-OK” or  “OK” fingers means “money” in Japan and is the gesture used for “zero” in France.
  • “V” for victory in the U.S. (alternate meaning of “peace”) if done with the palm facing inward means “Up yours!” in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa and several other countries.
  • The “Hook ‘em Horns” sign made popular by a Texas football team, is referred to as “il cornuto” by the Italians and it means that your wife is cheating on you. It’s considered a curse in some African countries, and is an offensive gesture in many other parts of the world.
  • A thumb up signal, meaning “good job” in the U.S. means “Up yours!” in Australia, Greece or the Middle East.
  • Pointing with the finger is commonplace in the U.S., however it is considered very rude in China, Japan, Indonesia and Latin America.
  • Curling your finger and wiggling it towards yourself is a “come over here” motion in the U.S. Once again, this is frowned upon in many parts of the world including Slovakia, China, East Asia, Malaysia and Singapore. In the Philippines it can actually get you arrested!

So when in a group of multicultural colleagues or clients, don’t assume that what is good for you is good for the rest of the group in terms of body language, spatial distance and hand gestures. It can be hard to know if you’re the monkey or the fish!

Source: Huffington Post, “Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Business: In Other Words, ‘Keep Your Fingers to Yourself!’“, Gayle Cotton, June 13, 2013