The UAE has a truly multi-cultural society that encompasses many languages and traditions from around the world, so it is not surprising to find one of the oldest forms of communication, the gesture or hand signal, is crossing cultural barriers to be adopted by everyone
There has been plenty of talk among the chattering classes of Dubai lately about the use of a new language in the city – mainly a sort of mixture of Arabic, Hindi or Urdu and English. The pundits voicing their opinions on the pages of the ‘paper’ are full of it: some say it's a good thing others are less convinced. But what the commentators appear to have neglected to notice is the cross-fertilization of gestures that is taking place between cultures.
Speech aside, take a look at the signals people are picking up. You would rarely, if ever, see an English person on the streets of London or an American in New York wiping their hangs together to indicate ‘finish’ or more correctly ‘Khalas’, but here to see Europeans and Americans doing so is commonplace. And it is not just a way of demonstrating their meaning to an Arab. Often in purely western company the same gesticulation will be used to underline the finality of the point.
Of course that is what gestures are all about – indicating you really mean what you are saying. And it is because actions speak louder than words that a sign is so effective.
The Arabic signal, which says ‘shwya’ or ‘give me a minute’, leaves the person ‘receiving’ it in no doubt as to the genuine nature of the feeling. Its intensity is indicated by the tightness with which the fingers and thumb are pushed together. It can be a mild reproof or even a joke, but there are times when the same gesture has the strength of a thousand words. And again Arab people are not the only ones using it – just take a look at your fellow multinational road users for a few examples in technique!
Many gestures have their roots way back in history. The vulgar two fingered sign, which is seen often on European roads, originates hundreds of years ago when the French and the English fought wars with bows and arrows. At the time, if the enemy caught archers they were liable to have their index and middle finger – cut off, to prevent them from being able to fire arrows again. Today’s gesture come from the idea of the luckier archers holding up their fingers in defiance to their enemies to show they were still ‘complete’ bowmen.
The victory sign is of course something quite different. Made by famous Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, during the Second World War, now it is actually seen far more often outside Britain – the Palestinians in the news reports from the Hebron are the latest group to make use of ‘V for Victory’ sign. It goes a long way to demonstrating their point across and beyond any language barriers.
Talking of digits ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ signs are now widely seen across the world. They are part of a commonly used international ‘language’ and more importantly they can be used to demonstrate the thumb owner’s meaning in any number of situations and be understood almost all over the world.
Perhaps it is for the versatility that gestures come in so useful for multicultural communication in a city like Dubai; gestures go a long way toward saying it all – chattering classes take note!