Getting to the Point of the Matter

Posted by martin.parnell |

I recently spent a week in Cuba. I had been there before and was aware that there are certain customs that one should be aware of when visiting the country.

As Brittany Brumfield points out, on her site Cuba,“Cubans are very rich in their nonverbal language. They focus more on gestures and facial expressions than they do on emphasizing actual words. In Cuban culture, it is considered very rude to take a step back from the person with whom you are speaking.” Brumfield says that “Cubans step forward in comfort and are easily offended when the other party releases from this comfort zone.” It also known that Cuba has its Latin roots so much like Latin America, they feel comfortable being physically close to another individual. 

Another key gesture important in Cuban culture is eye contact. Cuban’s tend to be very direct and clear about what they need/want/are talking about, however, constant eye contact is a no-no. This is because too much will make them feel uncomfortable. Yet, refusing or avoiding eye contact is considered a sign of dishonesty. So finding the right median with eye contact is important and indirect. 

On another note, the initial greeting is VERY important. According to the Centre for Intercultural Learning, “a handshake, for male and females, is expected always. If the individuals have met more than once, a hug is commonplace and expected. This is to establish the comfort zone that they feel is important.” 

“El último”   

However, there was one aspect of Cuban culture that I was not aware of that I learned during this recent trip.  My wife and I decided we would like to see the Cuban National Ballet’s production of Don Quixote, so we took the bus from our resort and made our way to the wonderful National Theatre, in Havana, to purchase tickets. Outside of thetheatre, we saw a queue, so we joined the back of it. After all, we had both been brought up in England, where queuing has been turned into an art from, it’s in our DNA. 

Within minutes, a very irate Cuban lady came and told us we couldn’t stand where we were because it wasn’t the back of the queue, we were baffled. Fortunately, a very kind gentleman explained that all the people we could see wandering around, sitting on the steps of thetheatre and leaning against the pillars were also queuing. So we asked how one knows where to wait. He then explained that Cubans don’t typically form a single line, waiting until their turn comes. They will often find a place to sit close to the waiting line or just leave and come back later, still expecting to have the same place. 

To accomplish this, they always ask for “El último” (last person waiting). As long as they keep an eye in this person, they know their position in the queue. If this “último” leaves his or her position, it might also be wise to ask him/her who he/she is following, so that you can follow two people and never lose your position. If you need to leave the queue, it is also customary to tell the person following you. If you intend to come back later and want to keep your position, then you should tell this person, “I will be back in 10 minutes.” (even if you are going to be more or less than 10 minutes). 

Amazingly, it works. We found the last person, a young woman and stood behind her until someone came and asked if we were “El último” and we could proudly answer with confidence that indeed we were! 


It’s rude to point 

Not long after returning from Cuba, I read an article by Lucy Yang ( ) entitled  “You'll never see a Disney employee point with one finger — here's why”. She had been speaking to  INSIDER's Micaela Garber, an Orlando native who spent a summer working at Disney World, who explained that cast members must always point with two fingers or their entire hand — a gesture known as "The Disney Point" because, in some cultures, pointing with one finger is considered rude. 

 As professional keynote speaker Gayle Cotton wrote in the Huffington Post in 2013, (Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Business: In Other Words, ‘Keep Your Fingers to Yourself!’), pointing with your index finger is an offensive gesture in China, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America. According to Cotton, who is an expert in cross-cultural communication, pointing with your index finger is also considered impolite in Europe. And in many African countries, the gesture is reserved for pointing at inanimate objects, and never at people. In fact, she lists several gestures that can be misconstrued, according to one’s culture, for example: 

In Brazil, Germany, Russia, and many other countries around the world, the OK sign is a very offensive gesture because it is used to depict a private bodily orifice. The OK sign actually does mean “okay” in the United States, however in Japan it means “money,” and it is commonly used to signify “zero” in France. Clearly the OK sign isn’t offensive everywhere; however, it is not OK to use in many parts of the world, nor does it necessarily mean “okay”!

Most people are aware that the V for victory or peace sign was made popular by Winston Churchill in England during WWII. However, it’s important to take heed of where you are in the world, because if you make this gesture with your palm facing inward in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and several other countries throughout the world, it in essence means “Up yours!”

On Inauguration Day 2005, President George W. Bush raised his fist, with the index and little finger extended, to give the time- honoured hook ‘em horns gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team to the marching band of the University of Texas. Newspapers around the world expressed their astonishment at the use of such a gesture. Italians refer to it as “il cornuto,” which means that you are being cuckolded (that is, that your wife is cheating on you!). It’s considered a curse in some African countries, and is clearly an offensive gesture in many other parts of the world.

Rule of thumb

The thumbs-up gesture is commonly used in many cultures to signify a job well done. However, if it is used in Australia, Greece, or the Middle East — especially if it is thrust up as a typical hitchhiking gesture would be — it means essentially “Up yours!” or “Sit on this!” The thumbs up gesture can also create some real problems for those who count on their fingers. In Germany and Hungary, the upright thumb is used to represent the number 1; however, it represents the number 5 in Japan. Take heed all you global negotiators: there is a big difference between 1 and 5 million!

Curling the index finger with the palm facing up is a common gesture that people in the United States use to beckon someone to come closer. However, it is considered a rude gesture in Slovakia, China, East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and many other parts of the world. It’s also considered extremely impolite to use this gesture with people. It is used only to beckon dogs in many Asian countries — and using it in the Philippines can actually get you arrested! The appropriate way to beckon someone in much of Europe, and parts of Asia, is to face the palm of your hand downward and move your fingers in a scratching motion.

The open hand or “moutza” gesture is insulting in parts of Africa and Asia, Greece, Pakistan, and in several other countries. It is formed by opening your palm with your fingers slightly apart and extending your arm toward someone, much like a wave in the U.S. This may seem harmless enough to many Westerners, however if someone does it with a more abrupt arm extension, its meaning changes to, “Enough is enough,” or “Let me stop you right there.” In other words, “Talk to the hand, because the face isn’t listening!”

When it comes to body language gestures in the communication process, the important thing to keep in mind is that what we say, we say with our words, tonality, and body language.

Two way street

Of course, it works both ways. In our Western culture there are certain things that may not be acceptable to us, but are perfectly OK in other culture, including: 

  • Turning up late for an appointment and not feeling the need to apologise (I experienced this a lot, in Tanzania)
  • When you first meet someone, being asked what you or your wife/ husband
  • Being asked why you don’t have children
  • Unsolicited marriage proposals from strangers.
  • People standing way too close.
  • Shop clerks who follow you around the whole time you’re browsing.
  • Staring
  • Ignoring queues and pushing in
  • Bartering in shops
  • Urinating in the street 

All perfectly acceptable behaviour, in some cultures. 

A sensitive approach 

As a professional speaker and Rotarian, I have developed an awareness of the importance of being sensitive to the cultural practices of people I meet and am learning all the time. 

In business, it is equally important to be aware of the cultural practices of those we encounter, whether it be prospective clients or people in our employ. It would be ignorant of us to expect someone to fully embrace the nuances of our culture, if we were not, at least, making an effort to be respectful of theirs.

And one final thought, although, culturally, we may have some differences, it is worth remembering....

“Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences, like love and weeping and laughter, common to all human beings". Aberjhani, Slendid Literarium.

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