Thumbs up buddy

February 2013. Posted in Articles, Gestures, Fun Section

Thumbs up buddy

Gestures or symbols are closely linked to cultural practices, as products of tradition, not biology. Gestures may seem like rituals within a certain culture, symbols of which only a shared knowledge allows sense-making, thus reducing the risk of misinterpretation. Because how people understand a gesture, largely depends on where they are in the world. May I introduce this with a simple anecdote? As a speaker at a conference on international communication in Tehran, I was crossing a road. And honesty makes me admit that the pedestrian traffic light might have already changed its green colour, but being late as I was, conscience can be very iving at such moments. That road however seemed a lot less small by the time the traffic actually started to move. I quickly established eye contact with the drivers in order to let me pass safely. Their true gentlemen reactions gave me a feeling of passing through the Red Sea, and out of gratitude I gave them the thumbs-up, dicating my positive evaluation. The very moment I did, I realised my faux-pas. The thumbs-up gesture in Iran, traditionally an obscene gesture, is the equivalent to the use of the middle finger. Within seconds the gentlemen drivers in that Red Sea turned into pursuing Egyptians with their chariot-wheels, making me run for my life and my lecture (which I certainly made on time now). Conclusion: gestures matter.

The ‘thumb-sign’ originally comes from pilots (and not the Roman empire as is commonly mistaken). It is used by retailer Media-Markt in its web and flyer sales communication, the Amsterdam municipal subway system uses it etc. etc.Marketing departments probably don’t always realise that there are countries where using this sign has a very negative meaning, like Iran. Besides in the West the gesture also plays a supporting role the visual culture of ads or billboards in Indian everyday street culture. Where brands like (I want my thunder) ‘Thumbs Up Cola’ or ‘Bharat Petroleum’ make intensive use of both gestures.

Even in counting it isn't universal. In Germany it stands for ONE, while in Japan FIVE. Think twice before you order anything therefore...