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Ten Cultural Gestures Which can be Misunderstood in Courts Worldwide

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By Dr Bashir Qureshi FRCGP, FRCPCH, AFOM-RCP, MICGP, Hon. FFSRH-RCOG, Hon. FRSPH, Hon. MAPHA-USA.

• Expert Witness in Cultural, Religious & Ethnic issues in Litigation

• Expert Witness in GP Clinical Negligence

• Author, Transcultural Medicine; dealing with patients from different Cultures, Religions & Ethnicities 

Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. (Rudyard Kipling). What ever happens in intercultural encounters, it usually has innocent reasons and good intentions. The courts, judges, juries, lawyers, expert witnesses, clients and public present in court or watching on media, worldwide are becoming multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic. This is due to political and economic factors. This trend is really to continue.

I was born in multireligious India, grew up in multicultural Pakistan and worked in London, multiethnic England. Therefore, I can perceive some intercultural gestures impartially while respecting Eastern as well as Western cultures. As an Impartial Expert Witness in Cultural, Religious and Ethnic issues in Litigation in the UK since 1992, I am writing this guest editorial to inform all colleagues about 10 cultural gestures which are commonly used and can create mutual tension, misunderstanding and conflicts. Please mind the gap!

1. Thumb up; stationary (Right hand)

In the West, thumb up is a good gesture of complement, saying “well done”. In the East, it is very rude indeed; it means “up your Ars”. When I looked at the attached picture of President Donald Trump of the USA showing his thumb up to President Kim Jong-Ung of North Korea, who did not reciprocate but looked embarrassed. I thought that the people and media in the Eastern countries may be annoyed with their happy counterparts in the West, for insulting them. It will not be a fake news. In a Court, a judge may appreciate an Eastern witness in this way, with bad results.

2. Thumb up; moving laterally (Right hand)

If a judge of Western culture were to ask an Eastern man in witness box, who does not know English language well, in a court hearing, “did you get anything?”, the respondent may move his thumb laterally and persistently because he is replying “nothing”. It also means that “I shall give you nothing”. The Western Judge and Jury and barristers may perceive it being rude and not answering the question. In the West, it does not have the same meaning. The Westernised Eastern interpreter might not be able to help because they are trained to interpret language but not cultural gestures.

3. Thumb and Index finger circle. (Right hand)

In the West, it is a symbol of appreciation, it means “wow, very good, I like it”. In the East, it means “I will f--k you”, This circle also means “your anus”. It is extremely rude and may provoke abuse back response. Just imagine that if a Western barrister shows his thumb and index finger circle to his Eastern client in the witness box, what an anger provoking gesture it would be, to a Non-Westernised client, Jury, public and media. Even if I were to be present there as an Impartial Expert Witness, I would not be able to speak without being asked by the judge, who won’t ask. Hidden anger can influence proceedings negatively.

4. Index finger up; stationary or moving forward (Right hand)

In the West, it means “one” or “say one fact”, but in the East it means “stop speaking” and “sit down”. The Eastern clients and witnesses would recollect their teachers in school asking them to stop speaking and sit down or be ready for punishment. The Court proceedings and decisions may be affected adversely in such confused circumstances.

5. Two fingers back facing other person (Right hand)

It is very rude in the West, as it means “f—k off” or “buzz off” or “go away”. It means only “two” in the Eastern culture. An Eastern witness who may say to a Western Judge “I make two points, sir” and put two fingers up, with back of fingers facing the Western Judge. Nobody would ever know the extent of the judge’s anger and negative verdict. As an Impartial Expert Witness, I have occasionally witnessed such events.

6. Fist up; stationary (Right hand)

A closed fist is a symbol of power in both cultures. However, it means “unity and strength but no threat” in Western culture but “power to use against the other party, now or later” in Eastern culture. I can only imagine this gesture being used between two opposite parties in waiting court rooms or outside the courts.

7. Whole hand up; stationary or moving sideways (Right hand)

This gesture is used by a Western judge to ask the audience to be ““quiet””. It can also be used by our Royal family or political leaders to acknowledge public’s “appreciation”. However, it could be a symbol of a “power which could be threatening, akin to showing a slap” to an Eastern person. Of course, there are regional variations in the East, in its interpretation.

8. Fingers scratching one’s own head (Right hand)

A Western person would scratch the head in “surprise”. It is not an Eastern habit; Easterners may scratch their heads due to sweat caused by a turban, if wearing one, or due to having headlice in their thick hair, a possibility more common in the Eastern countries. If an Eastern witness does this, a Western judge could interpret it a surprise and may react with contempt but not consider it as contempt of court.

9. Both hands in one’s trouser pockets.

This custom is popular among British army and police but not among civilians. Some Eastern upper social class people, especially visitors, would keep their hands in their pockets when meeting Western people even in court hearings. This would startle the Westerners. It is a British colonial custom adopted by local rulers in Eastern countries. It would be frowned upon by Western court officers and attenders, especially Etonians, who started it in the first place, a long time ago. 1

0.Touch wood; touching a table (Right hand)

Good memories die hard. I remember watching on television, Her Majesty the Queen was visiting the late Shah of Iran in Tehran. During her dinner speech to Iranian Royal supporters, she touched the table and said “touch wood, we can build our mutual friendship”. Everyone laughed as a reflex and then stopped laughing suddenly as a gesture of respect. The Queen paused and then completed her speech. “Touch wood” is a symbol of good luck by nature, in the West only. I am sure she must have been informed that it is only a Western gesture; in the East it is God or King or President who decides everything. They have nothing to do with any wood. Such innocent incidents could occur in courts worldwide.

Finally, I would suggest that only a sincere understanding can remove transcultural misunderstandings. Positive understanding of each other’s cultural, religious and ethnic differences can eliminate or lessen tensions, conflicts and wars.

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