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February 19, 2014

Basic Gestures: Best Survival Tools for Travelers

Like most other enthusiasts, I like to travel and especially to those locations that never been visited before by me. Traveling is a unique kind of experience because it widens person’s horizon and also level of understanding about different types of environments, places and people.

A traveler put itself on test because it has to adapt to new place and environment while assuring its own well being. A traveling individual always has to remain fully attentive towards incoming signals that could give clear idea about different biological and non-biological entities.

This is the very reason why traveling generates the feelings such as thrill, achievement or adventure in the minds of the most people. Traveling to different locations, facing local people and adapting with local climates teaches many things that stagnation doesn't.

On the other hand, traveling person has to remain more conscious while sending out signals or communicating with native people. If the traveler and native people know same language(s) then there wouldn’t be many issues other than violation of some local cultural protocols and norms.

Both parties need to make certain compromises to let interaction and dealing remain smooth as much as possible. But what if both parties don’t know each others' language(s) at all? What if a traveler is visiting a territory that is filled with people belonging to entirely different ethnicity, race and culture? This is the real challenge that many people hesitate or even avoid to face.

Language barrier?
Many travelers might get frustrated or even give up in this situation because both parties could not understand each other well and perhaps feel misunderstood by each other. Nothing seems moving smoothly! Language barrier makes both traveler and native people ‘Dumb’ for each other. Still, they both parties need to cope up with language barrier.

Moreover, the traveler might feel guilty and restless because of certain local codes of conduct that might have been broken by it. There’s no way to convince native people that violations were unintentional and due to lack of knowledge only. Nobody would like to return back to home beaten or harassed by native people

What would you do when you are asked to migrate and live over a considerable amount of time period in a foreign territory? How you would communicate with native people without knowledge of their language(s)? Successful spoken communication without a good translator or translation handbook seems highly impossible in any foreign territory.

Still, we dare to venture in new people because we human beings (or any other animals on this planet) know a unique way of exchanging information without words or numbers. We all very well know, observe and experience that facial expressions of basic emotions are almost common across the globe.

There’s no other commonly known, observed and experienced facial expression or gesture like a smile - even if it’s genuine, fake, forced, polite or social. However, conveying information using muscles of face isn’t enough so we need to use our hands for exchanging different types of data, ideas, facts and figures.

Of course, we cannot achieve precision/accuracy and attain variety using gestures the way an established spoken or a sign language can. Any typical spoken or sign language may have its own (limited) vocabulary to meet different demands.

Yet there are few well known gestures that we all inherit and can easily learn. These gestures can really help us in surviving and negotiating challenges across geographical boundaries.

Some commonly known gestures or signals

Few commonly understood *facial emblems, neck movements and especially hand gestures which are equivalent to different words, phrase and sentences can definitely make a great difference. If you know them well and have used before accurately then facial and hand gestures can really give you an upper hand in foreign territory.

More chances are that native people would understand you clearly and instantaneously by observing your gestures as compared to any other attempts you do. In some situations, it could make difference between life and death too.

This world is full of both opportunities and challenges so we need to negotiate with them in an equal manner. We might miss many opportunities hidden exactly behind those few challenges we’re trying to avoid in our journey.

Destination Chennai
Before migrating to Chennai (a large south eastern port city in Tamilnadu state of India) with my wife to grab a good career opportunity, many people expressed great concern about language barrier that I would face. I wasn’t aware about native language - Tamil at all.

Moreover, the language is entirely different than any north Indian languages (specifically language like Hindi - world’s 4th largest population speaks it) because of its ancient and classical nature.

Still, I wasn’t much worried about communicating with native people because of knowledge about common hand gestures. In fact, I decided to put myself on a test - Efficiency and accuracy of gestures (or nonverbal signals) I use to communicate with people in different situations.

Hand gestures alone or sometimes combined with *facial emblems, neck positioning/movements and para-linguistic annotations can be used for conveying or enquiring numerical information, physical conditions, directions, geographical features, physical location, weather, characteristics/features, feasibility (related to something) and different objects or entities.

Different messages can be generated by making
solitary gestures, by combining many or putting them in a certain sequence. However, one also needs to keep in mind that a particular gesture can convey message that can have an entirely different or opposite meaning in foreign population.

Vertically held open palm silently says ‘Stop’ or ‘Enough’ in western hemisphere but same gesture means ‘Come’ in Iraq. It’s exactly like single word having different meanings in different languages.

'Stop' Gesture
Good examples of common nonverbal signaling equivalent to different words, phrases and sentences are Hi, Hello, Bye, OK, Yes, Good, Bad, I’m (not) good/fine., My name is (your name)., I’m from (name of your native place)., I’m here., Thanks!, Sorry/Excuse me., Beautiful, Please, No, Enough, Not, Here (it is), There (it is), Crazy, This/that, Up(ward), Down(ward), Long, Short, Small, Big, Tall, Inside, Outside, Open, Close, Entity having shape like (the way hand gestures you make), It’s me., My mistake/fault, This/that is mine., On feet, Where’s the place/object (that you want to go to, get or see)? Oh I see., Which way? Who are you? What is price (of the particular thing)? What’s this/that? How (come)? What’s the matter?, Look at me/here/there/(or any other direction you point at)., Which one?, Bring this/that to me., I’m (not) coming/going., It’s (not) OK., It’s here/there. Stop, Come, Follow me., I’m (not) going., I don’t want this/that., Go, You may go first. Let’s go!, I take care of this/that., I’m thinking., Interesting, Is it so?, Disgusting, Hmm, Surprising, Tasty food, Terrifying, Keep this/that away from me. Though I’ve given only few examples here but many adverbs and verbs or actions can be represented by hand gestures only.

Can a person learn foreign language(s) also on its own? Of course, it’s very possible! A willing person needs to pay keen attention at native people using different hand gestures, vocal tones, *facial emblems, neck positions/movements
and other body movements during dialogs. By picking nonverbal signals, the learner can easily figure out what native person might have spoken or said. For same, situational awareness is also very essential to have good idea of different contexts.

By sensing repetitive verbal and nonverbal messages in clusters, anybody can learn to speak any foreign language within just few days or months at least with a limited vocabulary. Undoubtedly, this is an extraordinary power of nonverbal communication that everybody would accept unconditionally.

Are they really 'Dumb'?
Words and numbers help us to exchange accurate and elaborate information about real and abstract entities. Even large vocabulary coupled with good knowledge of grammar can help somebody in achieving great success in fields like literature, media and education.

However, when it comes to basic survival situation then only few words are sufficient to get your message across. In same way, few commonly known hand gestures and *facial emblems can definitely help you in inducing their literal meaning in the mind of receivers.

Just look at thousands of dumb and deaf people who can easily communicate through sign languages that have numerous hand and facial gestures. Perhaps, it's the most advantegeous and conscious use of body language cues.

*Facial Emblems: Voluntarily movement of facial muscles to convey information especially cognitive and felt-emotive statuses. Good examples of emblems are frowning (pulling inner edges of both eyebrows together), raising eyebrows, protruding lower lip, biting lips, circling lips, biting tongue, pulling down both corners of lips, pressing lips together etc.

Related Articles:
1) Words and gestures are alike 2) Gestures: Are they learned or genetic? 3) Self-communication by gesturing 4) Cultural connection behind gesturing 5) Why exactly languages evolved?


  1. Great article as always Sachchidanand... and great way to connect your real life journey with your real life passion for nonverbal behavior. Isn't it interesting how we need to observe another person enacting a gestural behavior, in order to feel it proprioceptively and comprehend the meaning? Isn't it amazing that the best maze navigators (rodents) do not use vision or scent, but kinesthetic feedback? We are so urgent to "navigate" this hidden meaning someone is pointing to, that we have special mirror neurons that allow us to "share the urgency" and "feel" the path toward mutual meaning. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Great article sir! connects with a common man easily :)

  3. This is a great article for travelers. Well put, Sachchidanand.

  4. Very useful information put in a perspective for travelers/explorers.

  5. Interesting! Yes, cultural differences can be really interesting as well as humbling.....Having traveled a bit I feel there can be nothing as common as a genuine smile - it says the same in all cultures!!

  6. The 'oneness' of the Creation is realized and you come closer to the Creator!


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