Thumbs Up or What?

by Anna

When talking to people from a different country, it can sometimes be difficult to communicate properly with lots and lots of misunderstandings. But even with different social groups within the same country one can encounter different interpretations or meanings. Especially with the English language, which is found on all the continents on earth with various accents and individual developments. A small example for different meanings for the same wording: AA can stand for Alcoholics Anonymous as well as the Automobile Association, a banger can either be a sausage, a small firework or even an old car, and a bap could refer to a soft bread roll, a lady’s décolleté and in Northern Ireland even a person’s head.

I do love the Scottish accent, but I find it impossible to understand. So if someone tells you to “Awa’ an bile yer heid” (in simple English “Away and boil your head!”), he actually tells you to ‘get lost!’ or ‘forget it!

When I started out in healthcare, I sincerely believed that a lady wanted to buy something from the shops when she insisted she wanted to spend a penny first before going back to bed. Being a German national, to me the saying “to spend a penny” as in needing to pass urine, simply didn’t exist. A similar experience I had on my first day as a housekeeping assistant when making tea. I did not know that the English take milk in their tea, until an indignant elderly man complained that I had forgotent to put milk in his tea.

At work, if the language barrier can’t be overcome we can summon an interpreter, ask relatives to help out or use sign posters with icons and pictures to point to. However, I would like to indicate here how differently the common “thumbs up” sign for “everything okay” is being interpreted around the world (according to Wikipedia).

In some Middle Eastern countries, the “thumbs up” gesture is the foulest of signs, meaning in the most straightforward interpretation “Up yours, pal!” It has a similar meaning in parts of West Africa, South America, Iran (here similar to our “middle finger”) and even Sardinia.

In Italy, Germany, Greece and Hungary it could mean “okay” or simply indicate the number one whereas in Russia and Finland the expression translates as “awesome”, “good” or “well done” and more so in Finland even “keeping fingers crossed”.

Australia has assigned this hand shape to sign language as meaning “good” with the general meaning being “terrific”. In American sign language, however, this gesture means “yourself” and when wiggled modestly left and right it indicates the number ten. When lifted up by the other palm it creates the meaning of “help”. Japanese sign language on the other side associates thumbs up with a man or a male gender.

The gesture is well accepted in India, yet if the hand is wagged from side to side in a reverse-pendulum like motion, it means “won’t work” or “disagree”.

The meaning in Egypt, Iraq and Israel is “perfect” or “very good”, in Brazil it might indicate “thanks” and in Denmark it means “awesome” or “good to go”.

In the West, hitchhikers use the gesture with an outstretched arm to get a lift. Just imagine what trouble you could get yourself into hitchhiking in the Middle East! Or think of an American mute “shouting” for help and we assume that he is doing just fine.

I might have to think more carefully the next time I raise my thumbs 🙂