A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

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Merkel Shrugs Bush’s Massage Off

It has become a bit of a classic, so here’s president Bush rubbing the shoulders of bundeskanzler Angela Merkel at the G8, last summer.

 
(for higher quality images, see this slideshow)

This bit of cross-atlantic communication between Bush and Merkel comes fairly close to a cultural misunderstanding.

Yet I do not think Bush’ gesture (giving a shoulder rub) was misinterpreted. I would say that giving a shoulder rub (or quick massage) is a gesture of closeness, saying it is okay to let your guard down. This can be accepted by the receiver, who is then however in a bit of an underdog position. They both seem aware of this.

Merkel, however seems surprised and her response is clearly one of not accepting. Instead of undergoing the shoulder rub and all its implications, she puts her hands up and smiles uneasily. To me this indicates she tries to make a compromise between shrugging him off and letting him save face.

Classic: Bush’s One-Fingered Victory Salute

Do not take the following politically. I just wanted to add this case to my collection of famous gestures by public speakers caught on camera. George W. Bush is caught giving the finger in what he calls ‘a one-fingered victory salute’. According to About.com‘s D. Kurtzman this happened in Austin during the later months of Bush’s term as Texas governor. That is almost 8 years ago I think. But still people ask me whether I have seen this video. So here it is.


Which victory was Bush ‘celebrating’?

Robot Man: Noel Sharkey

I read a news item about robots on the Dutch news site nu.nl (here) about the ethics of letting robots take care of people, especially kids and elderly people. The news item was based on this article in ScienceDaily. Basically it is a warning by ‘Top robotics expert Professor Noel Sharkey’. I looked him up and he appears to be a man to get in contact with. He has, for example, called for a code of conduct for the use of robots in warfare (here).

Noel Sharkey

Noel Sharkey

According to his profile at the Guardian (for which he writes):

Noel Sharkey is a writer, broadcaster, and academic. He is professor of AI and Robotics and professor of public engagement at the University of Sheffield and currently holds a senior media fellowship from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council. Currently his main interest is in ethcial issues surrounding the application of emerging technologies

I wholeheartedly agree with his views so far. He has a good grip on the current capabilities of machine vision and AI, neither of which I would trust when it comes to making important decisions about human life. At least when it comes to applications of speech and gesture recognition, with which I have had a lot of experience with, they simply make too many errors, they make unpredictable errors, and they have lousy error recovery and error handling strategies. So far, I only see evidence that these observations can be generalized to just about any application of machine vision, when it concerns the important stuff.

It reminds me of an anecdote Arend Harteveld (may he rest in peace, see here) once told me: Some engineers once built a neural network to automatically spot tanks in pictures of various environments. As usual with such NNs, they are trained with a set of pictures with negative examples (no tank in the picture) and positive examples (a tank in the picture). After having gone through the training the NN was tested on a separate set of pictures to see how it would perform. And by golly, it did a perfect job. Even if nothing but the barrel of the tank’s gun stuck out of the bushes, it would spot it. And if there wasn’t a tank in the picture the NN never made a mistake. I bet the generals were enthusiastic. A while later it occurred to someone else that there appeared to be a pattern to the pictures: the pictures with the tanks were all shot on a fairly sunny day (both in the training and testing pictures) and the pictures without tanks were taken on a fairly dreary day. The NN was not spotting tanks, it was just looking at the sky…

University of Sheffield
Wikipedia

Ricky Martin Gives Finger to War Promulgation

It is thoroughly depressing that the man who is himself the most notorious finger giver on Earth is also a high profile receiver of the same insult. Yet another first place for the planet’s most hated, powerful, unbelievable executive manager; self-styled commander in chief of the armies of the West; the captain that laughs in the face of the dark hordes from the East: President George W. Bush.

Ricky Martin is now making headlines (VivirLatino, BBC, ABC, and countless copies) defending his action of giving the finger as he sang about Bush in a song in front of a big audience. Careful, Ricky, I can recall a bus driver getting fired over insulting the B that would be Big.


Latin Lover or Hero of Peace? (source)

Mr. Martin explains that he is against war, that Bush is making (or actually promulgating) war, and should therefore be condemned.

Well I guess that’s another way to interpret the gesture: Instead of saying “fuck off” or “go fuck yourself” Ricky Martin uses it to say “I condemn your behavior”. But I guess anyone who feels wordy enough to say ‘promulgate’ to the US masses, can get away with stretching the meaning of a gesture a bit. Funny, nobody seems to be hosting a picture or a video of the event. Anyone?

Bus driver fired over finger

In never-never-land across the ocean they simply will not put up with it. A mere bus driver giving the president Bush the finger? I think not. The woman must be fired. And so Republican Rep. Dave Reichert called her boss and arranged matters. It is a no-news story that I would not normally dream of bothering you with. Some lady giving some guy the finger, it must happen thousands of times in exactly the same way. But because the lady lost her job and the US media and politicians are whipping up the story in these elections it has become too big to ignore.

The bus was searched and cleaned afterwards

The national guard was called in to secure the bus 🙂 (source)

The Biggest Misunderstanding About Gestures

Why is it that some, like Judie Haynes from the US, would want to teach the young to watch out how they gesture when they meet people from a different culture? She gives 10 examples that are “perfectly acceptable” in the United States but rude, or obscene, in other cultures. However, her examples are sometimes incorrect, always exaggerate differences, and show no appreciation for Man’s ability to meet strangers and tolerate cultural differences.


A meeting between Americans and scary foreigners? (source)

Is it part of a xenophobic program of fear? Are people really convinced they won’t be able to establish fruitful communications with foreigners? Or do we just like to point out the differences between cultures? For my own piece of mind I will assume this last suggestion is true in most cases.

Do I think that cultural differences are not interesting? No, they can be interesting, but I think there are more interesting things to tell about gestures and culture than just point out different meanings for emblematic gestures. Desmond Morris, in his Gestures, their Origin and Distribution (1979), at least provides great information about the spread of meanings of a gesture throughout Europe and a history. See this example of The Thumb Up. If you want to talk about culture and emblematic gestures, follow his example and do it right.

Some trust in God, and their God alone. Few may trust in humans, but I thank God I am one of those happy few. I believe people are able to handle cultural differences if they are both willing. Gestures will seldom lead to misunderstandings. In fact, I will raise the reward for evidence of a gesture mix-up to 150 euro.

I think gesturing will often help you communicate to strangers, and clarify your intentions. It can form the basis of acquiring an unknown language. I felt confident when I went to Italy and Russia that I could jumpstart communications through gesturing. I quickly picked up a bit of Italian and Russian like that and to top it all off: I learned the meaning of their gestures without any problems.


A meeting between New Zealanders and kids from Yemen (source)

When my kids grow older I hope to teach them not to be afraid to walk up to friendly strangers and talk to them. We are all humans after all. And I will tell them to talk with their hands if words fail. Gestures are not our enemy, they may well be Man’s best friend.

Chavez Gestures

There was a nice bit of gesturing in the speech by Hugo Chavez at the UN General Assembly.

After recommending Chomsky‘s Hegemony or Survival and calling out Bush as the devil, he invoked heavenly protection. He crossed himself elaborately, including kissing his hands before folding them in a quick prayer to the Lord above. I wonder if all the representatives from all over the world understood the general meaning of these gestures. My guess would be that they did? The laughter and applause seemed to be in response to it, to some extent anyway. Throughout his speech I think he made good and frequent use of co-speech gestures in a relaxed style (which appears common in Venezuela culture).

History of the Nod

Conrad H. Roth has a blog called Varieties of Unreligious Experience. On it you can find everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the head nod and more and more (the best was saved for last I believe). Parts one and two are largely etymological speculations. Part three treats the gestural aspect. Why he chose the humble nod, I cannot tell, but he provides ample reading material on the subject.

“Proud day: Rice accepts Bush’s nod to head State” (source MSNBC)

A possible candidate for gesture mix-ups is the way Bulgarians nod for yes and no (see video). I hope the people of Umanify are still listening? (They wanted their avatar to use appropriate head gestures)

Reward for Gesture Mix-Up Evidence

Of course they fascinate me, those classic cross-cultural gesture mix-up stories, like OK versus Asshole and many, many others.

I will pay you for a good video of a gesture that was misunderstood

In truth, the stories are always about someone doing something that could have been mistaken for something else. Or someone makes a gesture and is then told his gesture or behaviour is rude or even obscene in the culture he is visiting. That in itself says it all. The gesture was seen and recognized as not intentionally rude or obscene and the producer was informed about the mismatch. We guess the intentions of other people from the situation, the location, their signs of communication (be it speech, gesture or otherwise). So why did the gentle culture teacher point out the mismatch? Well, someone else could have taken offense! Of course, we are not stupid but we are afraid other people might by stupid and genuinely insulted.

The only first hand evidence, like here, is given by people with a commercial interest, for example in exploiting the stories in lectures or courses to business travelers. So, that is why I have put out a reward. Just send me a video, or preferably a link in the comments. If it is good (neither an enacted scene nor with commercial connections) I will contact you and pay you.

Update: I discussed this reward with some colleagues (GL, EO and A). They felt I shouldn’t be the judge so they volunteered to be a panel.

Update: The reward has gone up from 50 to 100 to 150 euro.

ps. Here’s the nice generator

Update – An ‘almost’ example: this bit of cross-atlantic communication between Bush and Merkel comes fairly close. Yet I do not think Bush’s gesture (giving a shoulder rub) was misinterpreted. It is a gesture of closeness, saying it is okay to let your guard down. This can be accepted by the receiver, who is then however in a bit of an underdog position. They both seem aware of this. Merkel, however seems surprised and her response is clearly one of not accepting. Instead of undergoing the shoulder rub and all its implications, she puts her hands up and smiles uneasily. To me this indicates she makes a compromise between shrugging him off and letting him save face.

G-Speak selling Minority Report Promise

Gesture recognition by G-Speak was reviewed the other day. Promises, promises, Minority Report. Their own website features a remarkable lack of info. The news movies are nice though. Raytheon is mentioned as well as the US military. I guess the enemies of the USA better watch out, or Uncle Sam may shake his fist at you!

Wanna shake hands with the President? (source)

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