22 December 2011


The ubiquitous thumbs-up gesture. It's used by everybody, all over the world. But what, exactly, does it communicate? Well, according to Roger E. Axtell's Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World a person would be well-advised to think before flashing a thumbs-up. Considered an upbeat symbol of good feeling and support in the Western world, in some Middle Eastern countries the gesture is an obscene insult. According to Axtell, it is similarly pejorative in parts of West Africa and Sardinia. Continuing around the world, thumbs-up can indicate the number one in Italy, Germany, Greece and Hungary, and the number five in Japan. In Russia and Finland its meaning is "awesome," "good," or "well done." In Australia, a thumbs-up generally means "terrific." In Egypt and Israel it means "perfect" or "very good." And Axtell notes that in Brazil, thumbs-up can be used in lieu of saying "thanks."

Wait one minute — in Brazil it can be used in lieu of saying "thanks"? Huh? No, here's where I beg to differ. I don't know Roger Axtell, but I have to think he's never been to Brazil. The thumbs-up gesture might not have been invented here — it's said that Brazilians adopted the gesture from watching American pilots based in northern Brazil during World War II — but here is where it has been perfected. It is used constantly, and "thanks" is the very least that the gesture means. For example, it can be used for "hello," "good-bye," "okay," "good luck," "how are you?" "see you around," "congratulations," "new car?" and "delicious."

Entire conversations can be held in the flash of that one simple hand gesture. In a restaurant it can be a signal to the waiter that you're happy with the food. Or —  if you hold up an empty beer glass in one hand and give the waiter a thumbs-up with the other — you just might be saying, "I know you're busy, but when you get a chance, could you bring another beer? Yes, another dark beer on tap." And the waiter's answering thumbs-up? "I hear you, no problem, coming right up."

I find the thumbs-up a particularly useful gesture for getting out of potentially embarrassing situations, like when you hear your name shouted from across the street. You look around and someone's waving and smiling. Just send back a thumbs-up which means, "Hi, yeah, I know I know you, but sorry, I can't remember from where." You get a thumbs-up back, and everyone walks away happy from that one.

Out in Brazilian traffic the thumbs-up is the great silent communicator. It's used to acknowledge the person who's stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic but who magnanimously let's you turn in or out of a street in front of them so as not to hold up your side of traffic any more. "Now that's using your head. Good call," says your thumbs-up. But then there are the drivers who are about to do an illegal or dangerous maneuver in front of you, and who use the gesture to anticipate and appease your road rage. In that instance it usually means, "Hey, buddy, let me in, will 'ya? What, you got a problem? Okay, it's over, see? No harm done."

I actually don't remember what my personal hand gestures were years ago, but I don't think the thumbs-up was one of them. Not being born here, I've had to adopt it quite consciously. Now, of course, I probably use it five to ten times a day, if not more. To me the thumbs-up is such a Brazilian gesture that I wouldn't be at all surprised if I heard that a newborn Brazilian baby gave the attending doctor the thumbs-up at birth.

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