“Don’t point at people!” my mother covered my little hand with hers. “It’s rude.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“It means you make them feel bad. So, don’t do it.”
Really? My small, chubby appendage possessed that much power?
So impressed was I with my finger’s clout that I exercised it whenever Mom wasn’t looking. I pointed my powerful finger at unsmiling adults on the street. I pointed at sour waitresses who disliked kids and salespeople who warned me not to touch their displays. I even forgot and pointed at Mom.
Strangely, my powerful finger didn’t work so well then.
The authority exercised by my finger, though, couldn’t begin to compare to that possessed by basketball referees. When they raised fingers at a ballgame, the numbers on a giant scoreboard changed. I attempted their gestures, but the numbers wouldn’t budge.
I needed to practice pointing a lot more.
During grade school, though, my friend grabbed me mid-gesture, saying a person should be careful to point the correct finger. Fortunately, my flawed gesture had been directed toward mean boys, not at the principal.
Travelers abroad also discover that hand signals can mean the difference between friendly international relations and banishment to a dungeon inhabited by undiplomatic snakes and crocodiles.
For example, consider the “V for Victory” sign Winston Churchill popularized during World War II. The prime minister made sure that his palm faced outward, as the exact same sign portrayed with palm inward would have inspired his fellow countrymen to fight against, rather than for him.
Interestingly, the Germans would have considered that British obscene version their “V for Victory” sign.
No wonder Churchill was careful about that one.
Unfortunately, former President George H. W. Bush was not aware of this British distinction. In 1992, he signaled the “V for Victory” sign, palm inward, to Australians lining the street.
Someone should have briefed the President, don’t you think?
His son, George W., and his family — Texas Longhorn football supporters — have been known to use index and pinky fingers to make the “horns” sign familiar to American sports fans. When, during a Washington, D.C. parade, they greeted the University of Texas marching band with the “Hook ’Em, Horns” gesture, no one in the U.S. blinked an eye.
Unfortunately, Norway had a slow news day, and their papers published angry headlines and pictures of the American First Family brazenly flashing what Norwegians consider the sign of the devil. With a few diplomatic explanations, the furor faded.
Other Longhorn devotees traveling in Rome in 1985 were not so lucky. Celebrating their team’s victory, they made this sign as they danced for joy outside the Vatican. Italians, however, regard it not only as a sign of the devil, but also of impotence and adultery. The happy Texas football fans were promptly arrested.
Perhaps we Americans, before traveling overseas, should consult the local Emily Post manuals regarding correct body language?
And all you sports fans — and referees who work games abroad — watch it.
As for me, I’ve taken my mother’s advice to heart and don’t point at people anymore. Anywhere.
When I dust off my passport again, I’ll take the other advice Mom gave me: I’ll keep my hands to myself.
Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have innocent intentions ever gotten you into big trouble?