Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you ever witnessed people making gestures in other cultures? Having skills to do business and communicate cross-culturally will help you become more successful. You must be able to describe what a gesture means in your culture and ask about them in other cultures.

Today we are going to talk about gestures, because this is a universal thing and can be specific to each culture.

Though this is not a verbal aspect of communication, it’s an important aspect of a culture to observe, understand, and be able to use properly.

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We have a really interesting and unique question today about this.

Hi ladies,

Thank you for the great podcast episodes, I always enjoy the positive vibe from your conversations! I hear that there are plenty of other podcasts that are mostly dark and sad. So your podcast has been something that I turn on when I want to feel good about the world.

I’m writing to you today to ask about translating or explaining gestures that are used by people from certain countries or cultures. For example, Japanese people click their tongues to show their frustration or unhappiness. I realize that I can’t really translate into English, as such gestures are not very common outside of Japan (or east Asia).

If I were talking to someone, I could probably explain, but it’s not always that easy. What if I were translating the story or a part of novel that the characters make such gestures? I’m interested in learning about this from you guys.

Again, thanks so much for the great shows. I hope you guys to keep up a good work.



Breaking Down Gestures

This is a great question, as gestures can be a bit confusing at times.

Common gestures in the US can include things like thumbs up, time out, and putting your hands up to say stop.

It sounds like Kinya in our example is speaking about more of a vocal gesture as well.

I guess you could equate something like this to sighing perhaps?

Actually, sometimes you may find that Americans click their tongues in this way as well–so there may be some similarities to certain gestures.

So in the example, Kinya wants to know what should be said when translating something within a gesture.

So how do you work through this when there is some sort of gesture that is different from the culture it is being used in?

This is a really interesting question because it focuses on something that we don’t usually think about.

Gestures are a form of communication, but they are nonverbal which makes it interesting.

We’re going to look at gestures, how to interpret them, what they can mean, and how to make this a part of your learning.

When Could This Help?

When could this help our listeners overall?

When might gestures be helpful or useful to you?

You want to understand what sort of gestures are common, but you also want to understand when they may be useful as well.

  • Translating: You may be reading something in class, either as a student or a teacher. A gesture may come in handy with this, or it may serve as a lesson overall.
  • Explaining to a friend in another culture something that you see on TV or on a movie and what it means. The reality is that TV shows or movies can be a great way to submerge yourself into a culture. You will likely pick up on some gestures that are commonly used in that culture, and then it helps you to understand it that much further.
  • Being in a restaurant or bar or cafe: It may be that someone makes that gesture and you want to explain it. You are very likely to see gestures used out in public, particularly in this type of setting. So it’s a great place to observe so that you can learn more.

You want to get a basis for how and why gestures are used in the first place.

Then you want to see when they are used, so that you can start to get a feel for why they are a part of this culture overall.

How Do You Explain Gestures?

So you know that various gestures exist within each culture, and you can see that sometimes they add value.

So how exactly do you do this?

How do you break it down and help to explain the use of a gesture and the reason that somebody may use it?

Here are a couple of things that may help you to explain gestures in a universal way, and give people insight into their usage in that particular culture.

  • Use this structure: The person ______________, which is a sign of _____________ (It would be optional to say something like – in _____ culture) An example of this could be: “The woman clicked her tongue, which is a sign of frustration in the Japanese culture.”
  • Before you get to that part, take a moment to explain: This is where you offer some clarity or explanation as to why this happens. It offers an introduction as to why this gesture exists or how it actually works. In this part you could say something like “In Japanese culture, it is common to express frustration or unhappiness by clicking the tongue.” Then when you get to that part, you can say “She clicked her tongue…”, and kind of make a face that shows you explained this before.

Let’s look at another example of a common gesture and what it means or how it could work.

Let’s say now you are out at a restaurant, and the waiter gives you the thumbs up.

“The waiter gave me thumbs up, which means everything is good. They have the dish we want!”

The idea is to express what the gesture is and what it signifies–then how it applies to your situation.

So you explained what the gesture is, why it is relevant, and how and why it is used in this situation.

A couple of additional examples may help here, so let’s take a look at them.

  • “She let out a huge sigh, which let him know she was frustrated.” This is a rather direct explanation of why she used such a common gesture. There is no question why it was used, and now you know how to use this yourself in the right situation.
  • “The girl rolled her eyes, which is a sign of frustration.” You could also say something like “She rolled her eyes to show her frustration.” Either way you are helping somebody to understand why she did this. This is particularly important when it comes to a gesture that isn’t necessarily positive or kind, such as rolling your eyes.
  • “The teacher put up his hand to show that he wanted the class to stop talking.” This is important especially when it comes to a gesture that commands attention from somebody in charge. You want to be in tune to such gestures so that you can listen and adhere to what is being asked of you. This would be an important explanation of a gesture used in a classroom for example.

How Can You Ask For Clarification?

So you are starting to get the hang of gestures in how they work and why they might be used.

You are starting to understand why gestures exist and what you can use them for in certain moments.

How do you ask for clarification about gestures though?

If the gesture isn’t clear or if you just don’t know how or why it is being used, there are some helpful ways to ask for some much needed clarification.

  • Can you do it in the moment? Don’t do it if the person seems frustrated, but instead ask someone else. If the person seems open, then ask them at that exact moment that the gesture was used what exactly it means. Even if you ask somebody else, you want to do so when it just happened or when it’s fresh in your mind.
  • “I noticed you ______________________. What does that mean?” You are straight up asking why they used the gesture that they did. You are focused on the gesture that happened, and then asking for some clarification. Most natives within that culture will understand that it can be confusing, and therefore happy to provide you with an explanation.
  • I was having a conversation with _________ and he/she ___________. What does that gesture/sound/reaction mean? You are drawing upon an experience that you had and asking somebody that you know and trust for some help.

It may help to look at some real life examples and how this may work.

Here are a few examples of how you might ask for some clarification on a gesture that you aren’t sure of.

  • “I noticed you knocked on wood. What does that mean?”
  • “I was having a conversation with my boss and he said “tsk tsk tsk” – what did he mean by that?”
  • “I was having a conversation with the librarian and he cupped his ear when speaking to me. What does that gesture mean?”

You see how this can be a very common aspect of a culture to ask about.

If you aren’t sure then ask for clarification at the right time so that you know how to use them, why the gesture was used, and how this all works in that culture.


Be honest and direct when explaining or asking about gestures or other signs.

These can be a very common part of a specific culture, and you want to know how to use them.

You also want to understand why and when they are used, so that you are able to interpret them just the right way.

Gestures can be a very common part of a given culture, and though they can be confusing at first you can always ask for clarification.

These can all be really helpful, as gestures are sure to be a part of almost any culture.

Look out for new gestures all the time as it’s a great way to learn and to become familiar with a culture beyond just the language that you speak.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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