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Multicultural Manners : When the ‘Come Here’ Gesture Goes Wrong

<i> Norine Dresser is a folklorist and author of "I Felt Like I Was From Another Planet," (Addison Wesley). Tell her your experiences c/o Voices. </i>

Helen Johnson works for a U.S. firm owned by a Japanese corporation. All the top executives are Japanese men with very limited English-language skills.

On her second day, Johnson needs to communicate with one of the bosses, Mr. Yamashita, about some paperwork on her desk. Conscious of the language barrier, she tries using body language to communicate with him.

After she catches his eye, she raises her hand, palm upward, and crooks her index finger moving it in a “come here” motion to beckon him to her desk. When Mr. Yamashita sees this, he flies into a rage.

What went wrong?

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The innocent American “come here” gesture in Japan is an obscene signal. Johnson was horrified when she discovered that her boss thought she was making a hostile sexual suggestion to him.

After this incident Johnson became so uncomfortable that she wanted to quit. However, when she gave notice, Mr. Yamashita refused to accept it because he, too, faced a cross-cultural embarrassment: In Japan, employees usually don’t quit. Despite Mr. Yamashita’s protest, Johnson felt so humiliated that she left the firm.

The Japanese are not the only ones to interpret the American “come here” signal negatively. Malaysians and people from the former Yugoslavia use the gesture to call animals, while Indonesians and Australians use it to attract streetwalkers.

Rule: Gestures do not have universal meaning. What might be innocent to Americans could be insulting to those from elsewhere.


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