Various enterprises and personal interests, such as Man-Machine Interaction (MMI), gesture studies, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Countries

A Human-Elbonian Handshake

Coincidentally, the daily Dilbert comic also features a somewhat alien handshake, as was the case with Robonaut’s handshake.

A Handshake or a Mitten Kiss?

Wally nicely takes advantage of the gullibility of his Pointy Hared Boss, who, like so many induhviduals, apparently believes in what one might call ‘Inter-Cultural Gesture Determinism’. It is one of the The Biggest Misunderstanding About Gestures that you should be wary of using gestures when talking to strangers. I believe that, generally speaking, when you meet people who speak another language or come from another culture, gestures are your best friend in communication.

M. Obama and Sembiring: The Handshake that Shook Indonesia

In the news today, another wonderful gesture story. An Indonesian politician, Tifatul Sembiring, shook hands with Michelle Obama. Sembiring is a conservative Muslim who states that he should not touch women who aren’t related to him (he avoided doing so while meeting Tsunami victims for example). Sembiring quickly tried to spin the story via Twitter and said:

I tried to prevent [being touched] with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me [so] we touched.

Here are a couple of video’s for you to see for yourself…

At first glance, it looks Sembiring doesn’t have much of a point, but I am actually inclined to grant him his point anyway, though not entirely. Here’s why: Michelle Obama can be seen to initiate the handshake, as she raises her arm and hand towards him (although it is not very clearly visible). At that point, Sembiring is already ‘forced’, in a way, to respond, or otherwise, if he left her hand hanging there without taking it, he might cause an awkward situation and possibly a loss of face for her, for him or both.

There is however a counterargument: Sembiring appears to quickly glance down just before the handshake which Michelle Obama could have seen as a cue to initiate a handshake. He is also in a posture that is open to shaking hands, probably caused by just shaking her husband’s hand, with hands available and an inviting demeanor. She may be looking for such cues if she is sensitive to the issue of shaking or not shaking hands.

It would be interesting to know if she avoided shaking hands with some other conservative Muslems in the line, or that she simply shook all their hands? The man to the left of Sembiring appears to do a better job of avoiding the handshake, by keeping his hands to his side and by looking mostly at pres. Obama’s face. As far as I can tell, Michelle Obama does not (try to) shake hands with that man.

So Sembiring’s mistake, if you want to call it that, might not be that he took her hand and shook it, but that he invited the initiating of the handshake through his behaviour (his eye gaze, and his posture). And then again, if you just shook hands with the US president, would you be strong enough to control your body language to such a degree?

Healy’s Flute is an Orangist Salute

Although the story of David Healy’s flute gesture is getting a little moldy it has generated enough discourse to deserve another mentioning here. The interesting thing about this flute gesture is how it is part of the history of the Northern Ireland sectarian conflicts. Sensitive catholic Irish republicans will get inflamed over the gesture while others have no idea what the problem is.

Healy Mimicks Playing the Flute
David Healy making the flute gesture. (source)

Orangist Marching Band
These flute bands on Orangist marches are what the gesture refers to.

Get a glimpse of the triumphalist nature of these marches

By coincidence I am currently reading ‘The Irish War’ by Tony Geraghty. He sketches a long and messy conflict which has gone on for more than 300 years. It is clear that these marches are of an inflammatory nature, and therefore a gesture that refers to them is also inflammatory. It is not just a merry band of flute-playing men. They celebrate Orangist protestant dominance in Northern Ireland at the expense of the catholic part of the population.

The conflict carried over to a Scottish football match called ‘the Old Firm’ between the Rangers (protestant) and Celtic (catholic), see this nice historical overview by the BCC. Many Irish people moved to Scotland and brought the conflict with them. Paul Gasoigne made the mistake of making this gesture while he played for the Rangers and paid a heavy fine of 20.000 pounds.

Gascoigne does the flute gesture
Paul Gascoigne made the same flute gesture during the old firm (Picture: BBC News)

David Healy was not playing for the Rangers, in fact I don’t think he ever did, but he is known as a Rangers fan. He is from Northern Ireland and he plays in their national side. However, in this game Healy was playing for Fulham (an English club) in a friendly match against Celtic, which sets the context for the gesture. Healy was ‘provoked’ by the Celtic fans who knew his sympathies and chanted ‘where were you on The Twelfth‘ (a reference to an important march on the twelfth of July). In response, he seems to have made this gesture somewhat jokingly. The strange thing is that he seems to be escaping the sort of fine Gascoigne got. Why is that? Was Gazza perceived as doing it to inflame Celtic supporters whereas Healy was just fooling around? I think many people will take it more seriously than that. As always happens with sportsmen making inappropriate gestures, Healy is now apologizing and his club is investigating. It wouldn’t surprise me if a fine came soon.

The Orange Order
What Irish Political Pundits have to say about it
A similar incident at Belfast Zoo, involving a panda.
CNN reports about the Orange Order marching season

Update: I think an important difference between Healy and Gascoigne is that the latter played for the Rangers who were at that time trying to defuse a tense situation. Gascoigne’s gesture was hurting that effort.

Serbian Salute by Marija Šerifović

Marija Šerifović recently won the Eurovision Songfestival with a nice song called Prayer.

Marija during her performance
Marija Šerifović (photo by Indrek Galetin)

She is also the main character in a nice story about a gesture: the Serbian Three-finger Salute: The three-finger salute is a Serbian salute with the thumb, index, and middle fingers open.

The origin of this gesture is said to be the orthodox way of crossing yourself, with three fingers instead of the entire hand (referring to the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

That is not unlikely but the actual othodox crossing is done with three fingers together, not spread. The spreaded Serbian salute could however be seen as an exaggerated version of the hand used in crossing. It is as if the Serbs, in this gesture, stress their difference from people that cross themselves with the thumb touching the fingers in opposition (catholic Croats?).

The Serbian salute is made, for example, by fans and players to celebrate sport victories. Members of other ethnic groups, especially Bosniaks and Croats, are said to find it provocative. So, it is effectively a symbol of national and/or ethnic identity.

Now, if you rewatch the footage from songfestival, you can see Marija and other members from her group giving the salute regularly when they receive points, or when they are cheering after their win. The same goes for cheering crowds in Belgrade.

Serbs cheer Marija's victory with salutes

In a way I feel that this salute is similar to waving a little flag, which is not criticized among songfestival contenders. However, one specific occasion sparked a bit of commotion. After receiving 12 points from Bosnia Herzegovina Marija made the Serbian salute. Some people were offended because Serbian troops also flashed this gesture around on their military campaign there, reminding people of the atrocities commited there by the Serbs (and others).

More generally, the Serbian salute was often used as a nationalist sign before and during the Yugoslav wars.

When she was confronted about her salute Marija Šerifović was irritated and said she did not have to explain her behaviour. Serbian commenters on the web are also quick to make light of the matter or suggesting critics to go to hell. Is it justified that the criticism is so easily shrugged off? I think it is not justified. I think Marija and other Serbs are well aware that they offend people with the gesture.

Because it is not the first time this story was told. It all happened before in exactly the same way, in 2003, with a Serbian basketball player in the NBA called Vlade Divac. He also flashed the Serbian salute to cheer or greet his countrymen. And when he was confronted by critics he also downplayed it and shrugged it off, much like Marija now, although he seemed to be well aware of the meaning and use of the gesture in the wars.

Read the full story for a good background on how to interpret the modern use of the Serbian salute. It also gives a good impression of how it was used by the Serbian militia. Here is a paragraph that I think captures the essence:

The symbol is associated with the Serbian Orthodox Christian Church, and experts say it represents the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, through decades of ethnic strife, the gesture took on a nationalist meaning. It is also associated with the “Three C’s” from the nationalist slogan “Only Unity Will Save the Serbs” (In the Serbian language, the words “unity” “save” and “Serb” all begin with the Cyrillic letter “c” the equivalent of “s”) It became used as a threatening weapon, an “in your face” gesture aimed at terrorizing non-Serbs.

So, are we to believe that people like Marija, who appears to be an intelligent, informed Serbian, are not aware they are causing offence with the Serbian salute? I find that very hard to believe. Sure, the songfestival stirs up feelings of national pride, and a lot of flags are waved. But this should be mixed with growing respect for eachother. That is the purpose of such events, much like the Olympics. I can only see this gesture as a childish boasting of her own Serbian identity mixed with a display of contempt for neighbouring peoples. Not illegal perhaps, but quite rude and highly offensive.

The only justification that could be made is that history is not as we think we know it, that the Serbs were actually also victims of the war, that this should be acknowledged, and more of such excuses. But even such a view (which I do not share) does not take away the childishness and rudeness of the act. It just hurts the eyes. Elsewhere: Samaha

Nyst Documents Adamorobe Sign Language

Victoria Nyst defended her PhD thesis titled ‘A Descriptive Analysis of Adamorobe Sign Language (Ghana)’ at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) two weeks ago (March 30). The local university website wrote a short piece about this Unique sign language in African village with high hereditary deafness.

One claim is that AdaSL is highly iconic; can you guess this sign? (source)

The village Adamorobe has a high incidence of hereditary deafness so there is a local sign language that both deaf and hearing villagers use. In the summaries there are some speculative claims about the different ways a sign language can develop or has developed in this case. Whether or not there is a large and isolated Deaf community is suggested to be the main factor in the arguments.

* provides a good summary in Dutch.
* The Foundation for Endangered Languages also has its eye on AdaSL.
* Promotors are Prof. Anne Baker (UvA), Prof. Maarten Mous (Leiden University)

Andrea & De Boer, 1993

Het gebarenboekje (via

Pat Andrea & Herman Pieter de Boer Baarn, 1993
Uitgeverij: Fontein, De ISBN: 90-261-0621-1
Serietitel: Fontein pocket special Nederlands

Pat Andrea illustrated and Herman Pieter de Boer wrote descriptions for countless Dutch cultural gestures. Together the pair authored four books, during the last 30 years:

* Nederlands gebarenboekje (1979)
* Nieuw Nederlands gebarenboekje (1982)
* Het gebarenboekje (1993)
* Het Groot gebarenboek der Lage Landen (2004)

I picked up the 1993 book a few weeks ago and it proved to be a delight to read. As a book on cultural gestures it is wonderfully free of the exaggerated stories of cross-cultural mix-ups that might occur (see also my 150 euro reward). Instead the book provides light hearted descriptions of how a gesture is made, with variations, and typical meanings in the different appropriate contexts. Somehow the illustrations often involve images of scantily clad ladies (perhaps the artist prefers scenery from the Red Light district). It is obvious that the authors are not scientifically motivated, but are simply enjoying a bit of Dutch culture which they try to pass on to readers. I heartily recommend Andre & De Boer for anyone who wants to share the fun of Dutch Manwatching.

Gestural Differences: Iceland vs. Italy

If you are interested in gestural differences between countries and cultures, you may want to read: Conversation Patterns in Icelandic and Italian People: Similarities and Differences in Rhythm and Accommodation. by: Alessia AGLIATI, Antonietta VESCOVO, Luigi ANOLLI. (pdf) It is a chapter in a book in a series. Are these two people Italian or Icelandic? (source). Agliati et al. (2005) analysed Icelandic and Italian styles of interaction in conversations. In particular they studied temporal management of conversation and gestures. In short, big cultural differences were found for both aspects. As some would expect: Italians often used wider and more open gestures than Icelanders. Conversely, Icelandic participants normally used closed and smaller gestures. Italian participants were also fidgeting more. Then there were some specific gestures used only by Italians (bag-hand) or Icelanders participants (pianist). Italians and Icelanders also handle things like turntaking and interrupting eachother differently.

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.

Countries, Cultures and Gestures

The way people gesture is part of the culture of a country. Which is why I present you here a list of decent introductions into the culture of many countries. Be sure to check each second paragraph on ‘Communication Styles’ which includes speech and gestures. You can also learn about displays of emotion, and many other aspects of culture. More external links are given in numbers 2, 3, etc. Any posts on this site are indicated with the little logo.

Bosnia And Herzegovina
Brazil 2 3
Central African Republic
China 2 3 4
Congo, The Democratic Republic Of The
Costa Rica
Cote D’ivoire
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Ethiopia 2
France 2
Hong Kong
Iran, Islamic Republic Of2
Italy 2 3
Japan 2 3 4
Korea, Republic Of 2
Kyrgyz Republic
Lao, People’s Democratic Republic
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Mexico 2
Nepal 2
New Zealand
Philippines 2
Russian Federation
Saudi Arabia
Sierra Leone
South Africa 2
Spain 2
Sri Lanka
Taiwan 2
United Kingdom
United States of America
Uruguay 2

Ps. Many, many thanks to the Canadian Office of Foreign Affairs for putting the info collected by their people online. Should the links break then please let me know. There is a mirror I can point you to.

Napoli gestures

The people of Naples have already been the frequent subjects of gesture studies. Online you can find here something about L’arte del gesticolare a Napoli. They also keep references to various studies.

What does this gesture mean? (source)

Andrea de Jorio wrote in the nineteenth centurey about the gestures of his fellow Neapolitans in La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano. It was translated by Kendon in 2000, see this online review. Essentially, de Jorio was a pioneering ethnographer, he described his own people, tried to link them historically to the Romans of classical times and so gave input to the city state’s cultural identity. All that through the study of gestures.

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