Mind Your (Body) Language!

Do you ever make a circle with your thumb and index finger, or give a thumbs-up to indicate that everything is “O.K.”? Do you ever touch your forehead with an index finger to indicate that someone is “wise”? Do you give street directions by pointing your fingers towards the nearest junction?

Do you think you are being polite by air-kissing people, or shaking their hand? Do you nibble at your thumb when you are distressed? Do you beckon people by curling your index finger upward? Would you take a bouquet of chrysanthemums to a sick friend? Do you play with your rings when you are nervous?

If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, I can only hope that your travels stop short at the Maltese shore, or else that, when abroad, you learn how to keep your hands to yourself… unless you don’t mind being referred to as coarse or downright rude.

The photographs of Dr Joseph Muscat doing a passable imitation of the ‘Figure-4’ leg cross while visiting the Chinese Vice President, Xí Jìnpíng, and of Dr Laurence Gonzi and King Juan Carlos of Spain, were all over the Maltese ether this week – with the two Maltese people being accused, according to the vagaries of bloggers and commentators, of being uncouth and discourteous. Not too many people ran to their dictionaries in order to discover what “Intercultural Competence” means.

Apologists for our Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition would say that for the former, it was merely synchronicity (mirroring) which in kinesics (body language) is said to create and maintain rapport. For the latter, the excuse is that whoever was in charge of PR slipped up, and thought that a supply of neatly-pressed clothing would be enough. This faux pas did not rate as many virtual print inches as Raisa Gorbachyova had done when she went for her Papal audience wearing red – and no veil – but only just!

Just for the record, the verb “shoeing” came into being when Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw a shoe at President George Bush, and spawned copycat incidents in many countries.

Yet it seems that the media pundits have forgotten the 1996 incident when former U.S. presidential candidate Bill Richardson was having during one-to-one negotiations with Saddam Hussein to secure the release of two American aerospace workers who had been captured by the Iraqis after wandering over the Kuwaiti border. Richardson accidentally exposed a sole and the latter temporarily left the room.

For the rest of us, who can take or leave – preferably leave – politicos and politics, it was just another transient topic to toss about over coffee.

Most of us know that it would be a faux pass for a man to kiss or hug a Muslim woman – or even to shake hands with her – even if they are related. But it stops there – because some men believe they have automatic “permission” to kiss female acquaintances of any other faith.

This is not true at all – some of us don’t like being kissed by male relatives or acquaintances – even when they do not have facial hair and/or halitosis.

Some people will bow rather than shake hands, for that is their custom; and the depth of the bow, and the position of the hands and feet during the obeisance, speak for themselves (if we know how to listen).
These days when you don’t need to travel to meet people of different cultures and faiths, it is good to be aware of social norms prevalent in other cultures and faiths. Just as you would not park “for five minutes” in front of someone’s garage door before knocking on the door and asking permission, it is repugnant to deliberately do things that are anathema to others.

Even something such as simple as eye contact is fraught with chances for misunderstandings. In Europe, if you don’t do it, you are considered shifty. In most Asian countries, it is considered invasive.

The same may be said for touching someone’s head, which, some people believe, is the seat of the soul. So, please think twice before patting a child on the head, unless you know the parent will not mind.

It may no longer be true that when in Rome, one must do as the Romans do; but the least we can do is look at their cues and not challenge them.


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