Monday, June 13, 2011

Hand Signals

I had a funny, classic cultural misunderstanding moment on Saturday.

I was with a group in a cafe, and a few of us ordered coffee. The waiter came out with our coffees, trying to figure out who had ordered them. We pointed to the coffee drinkers, and he had one left. Everyone pointed to me, and I raised my hand. He looked at me, and then kept looking for the person for the coffee.

Then they pointed more and told him it was for me. Again, I raised my hand so he could identify me. He turned from me and looked for someone else.
Coffee bought on
the street and in
cafes like the one we
 were in come in little
cups like this one.

This literally happened four times. He'd come toward me, I'd raise my hand and he'd back away, looking terribly confused and a little bit distraught. I considered the possibility that he was refusing to serve me for some reason.

Finally, as everyone was pointing to me and loudly telling him to give me the coffee, a friend realized what was going on and told me that the way I raised my hand meant "no."

You would think I'd know this by now -- I have been here for over five months, after all! Finally I stopped raising my hand and the poor guy could give me the coffee. Lesson learned.


  1. :-) I had a similar experience at Bible college with lots of international students.

    I couldn't work out why we always struggled to get the right number of teas and coffees after a meal. Eventually I realised that when I said "Who wants tea?", if I looked at certain a guy from Madagascar and he waved his hand, that meant "No", not "Yes". Actually, gesture was not dissimilar to one Brtis would use for "No", but we would position our hand a bit lower, and wave it more times from side to side if we meant "No". The difference was enough to fool us and cause many wasted cups of tea or coffee.

  2. Luke, that sounds very much like the same thing! So funny, these things we don't even realize we assume are the same in all cultures:-).