Relying on Gestures

A raise of an eyebrow, hands in pockets, shuffling feet — all of these are nonverbal clues that fill out your verbal communication, sometimes revealing more than you want your listeners to know. Some nonverbals are deliberate, however, packing in questions or commands without ever uttering a syllable. Though many translate across borders, some are unique to the culture they are embedded in.

Japanese Style

Most Westerners will touch their chests when saying “I” or “me.” In Japan, when referring to oneself, people touch their nose. Usually, this gesture is made with a single finger touched to the tip of the nose and accompanied by one of the various words for “I”: boku, watashi, atashi. Partnered with raised eyebrows, the gesture has the questioning effect of an innocent person being accused, or can be likened to the phrase: “Who, me?” When the nose is tapped successively, the effect is that of a confessor taking responsibility for a deed.

How do you indicate to someone across the room that you would like her to come to where you are standing? How do you call your children into the house for dinner? In Japan, the “come here” gesture is made with hand extended, palm facing down. The fingers flap out and back towards the gesturer. If more emphasis is required, a bent elbow may be enlisted to give the gesture greater visibility from far away. This gesture is often accompanied by the phrase oide.

Hands joined in prayer can mean any number of things. For this gesture, the accompanying phrase can make all the difference. Onegai ga aru indicates that a favor is needed. Itadakimasu and gochisoo-sama deshita (phrases used before and after eating) are almost always paired with a palms-touching gesture. When said with hands together, arigatoo deepens in its sincerity.

You may find that Japanese women, especially, have a tendency to cover their mouths when they smile or laugh. Seemingly self-conscious, this gesture may be left over from times when coquettish behavior was the norm.


You may find that you naturally incorporate gestures when speaking in another language, or as visual aids when attempting to explain something in English to a non-native speaker. References to numbers are easily supported by fingers (and sometimes toes). Size and shape are also more easily conveyed when arms get involved.

Facial expressions and the feelings behind them, too, are almost always understood across cultures. Smiles usually indicate friendliness or joy, but can also mask apprehension or uncertainty. Cocked heads and furrowed brows convey confusion. Nodding means “yes” or “I understand.” Shaking of the head says “no” or expresses refusal. Tears may be contextual in any land.

Whether you are trying to deepen a friendship or close an important business deal (no elbows on the tables, please), what you say with your face and body language are just as important as what is coming out of your mouth.

You may notice that people in Japan use their fingers differently for counting. Westerners usually indicate “one” with a single finger pointing up, “two” with two fingers and so on. Japanese people will start with an open hand, however, and bring each finger down, consecutively, starting by bringing the thumb in towards the palm to indicate “one.” “Five” is a closed fist, and “six,” then, is indicated by a raised pinky finger. This is a convenient way of counting because ten digits can be conveyed on a single hand.

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