Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gesture - The Art of Saying NO

We use gestures as an alternate form of communication. Gestures are powerful means of non-verbal communication. Gestures allow us to express variety of things; from approval; to rejection to hostility. They are boon to few people who feel uncomfortable to communicate verbally certain things. Let me take one such dilemma commonly faced by Indians.
How often have you said a bold NO? Why is that we Indians think that saying "no" amounts to rude behavior. Declining an offer is considered rude and impolite. We have trouble to say a firm "NO" and thus put ourselves in jeopardy; be it at work or otherwise.
I have faced this uncomfortable situation lot many times; biting off more than I can chew and hence choked to death! Why? Because I can never get to say NO.
We have been fed repeatedly with the idea never to DISOBEY. So declining something is "mapped" to disobedience by our poor mindset.
That's the culture; but what about the funny and embarrassing situations that this behaviour has put each one into? Whats the aftermath?
A funny incident of mine. The first time I landed in USA; I had no idea there were "Cultural Differences in Gestures" too. Well; I can be pardoned. I did not attend the "How to gesture effectively" and such classes.
A day in office; my colleague came to me and asked if I would like to join for a send-off lunch to another person as he was heading back to India. I had lots of work on my plate and I could not afford to stay away from office that long. The lady who invited me was an American. Well now; I want to decline the offer politely; but my Indianess is poking me and yelling at me "That would be so rude!".
So I resort to my safe method; as I have always done.

I shook my head from side to side

She was bewildered. I was also avoiding eye contact as I was already feeling so bad about declining the offer(Disobedience factor you see). She was looking into my eyes and asked "Bindoooooo, you want to join?" I give a shy smile. She thought I would join as I shook my head from side to side(It means YES in Saudi Arabia).
Oh my! I feebly said NO. I managed to find my voice and said "No Rosemary, I wont be able to join as I have lot of work to do and I must be done with it by today".

I later learnt that there are cultural differences while using gestures; and not all gestures are universal. Also there are innocent gestures which could get you killed! More than anything; A firm NO does not amount to impolite behaviour.


One more snippet I just recalled....

A colleague of mine who was a Japanese American was sharing with me the cultural differences she encountered when she visited Japan. She was born and raised in USA. She visited Japan for the first time. People gave her a queer look when she walked broadening her shoulders; when she laughed out loud; whenever she consumed half the space in the elevator. Women in Japan are supposed to talk very slow; in a feeble voice; occupy as tiny space as possible; and always walk with shoulders drooped; as a sign of respect!

Happy Gesturing!


  1. hey that is so true. gestures are so different from country to country. looking at the articles that you have sent me in the past few days, i am also seeing how different all of us are... and how different all the cultures are.

    a lot of us face the problem of the inability to say no. i suck at this and have found myself wallowing in my own dirt many a time. my dad used to give me a lot of advice on this matter. in fact being the same blood, i can assume that i got this character from him. This assumption was corroborated by the fact that i found a dusty old book under the bed once named, "don't say yes when you want to say no"... I giggled.

  2. and yaa thats a wonderful book indeed !!

  3. Yeah Gautam...I have been in this murky situation often. The book seems to be a good read. Have to get my hands on it.

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  5. In the Middle East, if you invite someone for dinner, they will say "yes". It does not mean they have accepted your invitation. It just means "I heard you". After a day or two, they will call you and inform whether they are coming or not.

  6. Thanks Mano...This is a piece of information

  7. and I have heard that in Malaysia, keeping ur hand over someone's head (like elders do in India) is considred very rude because they believe that god resides in the head.

  8. Hmmm....Thats new AS. Thanks for sharing it


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