Body Language and Gestures:
What did I say? What are ‘they’ saying?
Growing up, I can remember my mother telling me not to slouch, not to walk with my head down, and not to stretch my arms above my head (or stretch at all, for that matter) in public. I have tried desperately, through the years, to follow this advice with fervor. Thanks to these simple rules, among others, I have, succeeded somewhat in becoming a polite, socially-aware, confident young woman….as long as I’m in the United States. Body language laws, I’ve found, are quite different in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
If you’ve read Carioca Poker Face, you know my first run-in with simple hand gestures was at the airport when I flipped a police officer off instead of saying “ok,” like we do in the states. That was a pretty big oops, if I do say so myself. What I didn’t know is there were things far more subtle that I would have to modify.
For example, still at the airport while waiting for my bags to come off the conveyer belt, I stood, pondering how long it would take to appear semi-normal in a country where I was so obviously a Gringa. As I thought, my mother gave me a gentle nudge. “Take your hands off of your hips, Diana,” she said. I stared at her, baffled. Many of you may agree that placing your hands on your hips is one of the most comfortable ways to stand and wait…for anything. Now, I never went to prep school. Nor did I ever attend a junior Cotillion. This no-hands-on-the-hips rule may have been around for a while, but as I sit now, in a yupi Starbucks in the U.S., I can see three people with their hands on their hips. Needless to say, it had never crossed my mind as socially unacceptable.
My mother explained to me that, to place your hands on your hips in Brazil was like telling everyone in the room that you were upset or experiencing feelings of hostility towards someone nearby. Who knew? During my stay in Rio, I constantly observed people to see if this idea held up. To my dismay, the only instances I ever saw women with both hands on their hips was when they were angry. Straight men, as far as I could tell, never did it at all.
Below I’ve listed and described a few other parts of body speach that you may find useful and intersting.
Don’t look now–What eye contact can do
Eye contact in Rio speaks volumes. If you are a woman out in public, it may be tempting to observe the opposite sex—quite a handsome lot. Know, however, that the moment you make eye contact with a man, whether intentional or unintentional, for one second or several, you are expressing interest. Staring, then, sends an intense, usually sexual message that will likely result in the object of your gaze walking over and kissing you, often without even speaking.
Men, if you are the type of dork who uses pick up lines, leave ’em at home. You don’t need them. Staring is quite common among you, so go ahead. It is important to understand, however, that if you stare and do not approach a woman when she reciprocates, she will be insulted.
Standing on the beach
Because cangas, or large scarves, are used instead of towels on the beach, people use the sun to dry themselves after a dip in the ocean. This means standing for about five or ten minutes before sitting down. Both men and women do this, so do not be surprised. However, persons who stand for an unreasonable amount of time are usually on the hunt for a partner, or they want to show off their goods. In other words, unless you’re hungry for the opposite sex, sit down when you’re dry.
Now for things that are a little more noticeable…. Gestures. Below I’ll list the meanings of a few gestures and describe how one might execute them. Once you know them, you will probably find them helpful in communicating with those around you even if you don’t speak Portuguese. Brazilians are hand talkers.
“Come here” is a similar gesture to the one found in the U.S. except upside down. Hold out your hand with your palm facing the ground and open and close it, making a fist and then extending your fingers.
“Someone is going to steal from you.”
This gesture is commonly used in crowded areas like street fairs, concerts, buses, and the subway. Locals standing near you but out of earshot will often use this to tell you your wallet is coming out of your pocket or your purse is unzipped. It can also mean that someone else is eyeing your vulnerable belongings, so respond by checking your possessions immediately. The gesture is as follows:
One hand—let’s say the right—is open with fingers extended away from you. Usually that hand will be placed vertically with the palm facing left and the back of the hand facing right, away from the body. The left is also open, but horizontally with the palm down, and the thumb of the left hand is in the palm of the right, and the left hand is waving up and down, like a child would wave.
“I’m watching you,” or “I know what you’re doing.”
Pull the bottom lid of your eye downward with your index finger.
Pull on your earlobe with your thumb and index finger.
“That’s exactly what’s deserved,” “Wow!” or “Oh, Snap!”
Touch your thumb gently to your middle finger. With the wrist, move your hand up and down quickly so that your limp index finger slaps the inside of your middle finger making a snapping noise. This takes practice, but do not do so publically. People will think you’re an idiot.
“No big deal,” “whichever,” or “I don’t /he/she doesn’t…care”
With your two hands held vertically, palms facing inward, clap with your fingers, alternating the hand on the outside with the hand on the inside.
“Okay,” “Good,” or “Great”
Just give a thumbs up. Do not, by any means, use the “okay sign.”
There’s something romantic going on between two people
Hold two index fingers out side by side horizontally and rub them together.
And for all you rebels out there or for those of you who want to know if you’re being silently sworn at:
“F’ You,” or “A-hole”
What I once thought was the international okay sign. The thumb and index finger touching, making a pronounced circle and the other three fingers spread apart in the air. The middle finger is not as common, but is understood.
Something that I thought was meaningless but obviously has a vulgar meaning that you should avoid:
When I’m bored, I snap my fingers on my right hand, then immediately my left, open the palm of my left hand and hit it on the side of my right fist. I’ve seen many Americans do this. Unfortunately, the responses I got in Brazil were those of shock and horror, yet no one would tell me what it meant. To be on the safe side, simply don’t do it.
Please let me know if you think of any more gestures by leaving me a comment. Please, keep it tasteful. You can also check out a short tutorial that covers a few of these gestures here.