It’s not just language that can cause communication problems in a foreign country.
No, even though you’d think it would be simpler to just try to communicate through a series of hand gestures, even this can result in some confusion! Korea has a few tricky little body language differences. For most, it’s just a matter of learning them – like bowing instead of shaking hands when you meet someone who outranks you. When in doubt, don’t touch. ;)
However, a couple of them are much more difficult to get used to because they’re gestures we use at home, but they mean something different here – much in the same way as the head shake means yes and the nod means no in… Bulgaria (so I believe).
The one that shocked me at first was the backwards peace/victory sign. Where I come from, making the sign with your palm facing away from you is indeed a positive thing. However, reversing it by having the back of your hand facing away from you is most certainly not polite! To me, it has the same effect as just the middle finger being shown. You can imagine, then, how perturbed I was the first few times I saw cute, tiny, innocent children giving me ‘the fingers’ when I aimed a camera at them. It actually took me a little while to be sure that they really weren’t being rude!
The other confusing hand gesture, however, continues to catch me out on a regular basis. In the West, we will beckon someone to come over to us by holding a hand out flat with the palm facing up, and making a sort of flapping motion with the fingers. Either that, or we’ll motion with the index finger alone and tuck all the others in.
Unfortunately, both of these are understood to be how you beckon to a dog in Korea. You can imagine how insulting it could be, therefore, if someone did it to their boss or their friend’s grandmother. Not that I ever have, of course. Ahem.
I was corrected quite early on, but not because of any offence caused by my errors – Koreans are generally extremely forgiving of foreigners who don’t yet know all their ways. No, I just noticed that people kept turning me away for no apparent reason. There was a free checkout at the supermarket, for example, and I looked questioningly at the cashier to make sure that it was OK to go to her with my basket. She gestured at me to go away in what seemed like quite a dismissive manner. Then I approached a taxi which was waiting at traffic lights, and looked in at the driver as if to say “OK if I get in?”, and he made the same dismissive “run along, dear” gesture.
I couldn’t understand it. Nor could I understand the seemingly confused looks I got when I obeyed and stopped my approach each time. It was only when my colleague made the same gesture to me and then hollered “Where are you going? Come here!” that I questioned it and found out what was going on. Yes, confusingly and amusingly, the Korean hand gesture for “Come here” is pretty much exactly the same as our impatient, dismissive gesture for “Go away”!
The palm of the hand must face down (as the up part is what’s considered rude in our version) while the fingers are fluttered, in a gesture that looks just like the one you’d make if you were talking about something important and a small child kept trying to interrupt you to tell tales on his brother or something.
I really do find this one almost impossible to adjust to. Even though I know what it means, my brain seems to automatically process it as “go away, I’m busy”, so that before I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’ve already stopped short and turned to walk away. Just this afternoon, I poked my head around the office door to say goodbye to our director as I always do, just in case she has any messages or questions for me. She was on the phone so I just waved, and she made the gesture at me while she was talking. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the entrance hall that I heard her shouting my name and realised my error – my brain having decided “Oh, she’s on the phone, she’s busy, and she’s waving me on because she doesn’t need me for anything”, when in actual fact she was saying “come here, I need to speak to you when I’m finished”.
I suppose there are some things you just never get used to!