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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Non-Language Barrier

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?????? ?????: to wave at, to dismiss, to give up on something or someone

If you want to entertain yourself some quiet evening when there's nothing on the sports channels and you've watched every news show in four languages, try this out: Put your television on mute and watch a Russian soap opera. You will discover that you can follow the gist of what's going on through facial expressions, gestures and actions. Or you may find that you don't get the body language at all.

Midway through the show you may also realize that you don't gesture like the Russian characters on television. Even when we foreigners speak Russian well, our body language often doesn't match it. It's like we're wearing white socks with a tuxedo.

To improve the sartorial splendor of your nonverbal language, here's a small primer of common Russian gestures.

To show that you or someone else is crazy, put your index finger to your temple and rotate your hand (this is slightly different than the gesture in the English-speaking world of drawing circles in the air by your temple).

To show that someone is a fool, put your thumb against your temple and wave your hand up and down.

To show that you have lost your marbles, make a fist and knock on your forehead.

To show that you are confused, puzzled or deep in thought, scratch the lower back of your head. You can also describe this gesture verbally -- ?????? ??????? -- to express bewilderment.

To show that you are fed up with someone or something or feeling hopeless, flick your hand outward in a sharp gesture. This is ??????? ?????, which literally means to wave. But it can also be used to dismiss or give up on someone or something figuratively.

To show that you want a drink (an alcoholic drink, that is), flick your finger at your neck. You can also jauntily snap your finger at your neck, or place your entire hand there. Researchers have not yet determined whether the type of tap indicates the amount of alcohol to be drunk or whether it is the nonverbal idiolect of the speaker. But they are doing serious field work, and whenever they sober up, we'll have some 80-proof data.

To indicate -- very crudely -- a roll in the hay, make a fist with one hand, turn it so that the thumb and curled index finger are facing up, and hit that spot with the flat palm of your other hand. Beware: This is a nonverbal false cognate. You might make this gesture as an intensifier: "Gosh darn -- whap! -- we'll get that contract!" That "gosh darn" might send the wrong message to your potential Russian partners.

On the other hand -- as it were -- the Russian gesture of the thumb protruding between the index and middle fingers of your fist -- looks obscene, but isn't. It is the visual version of ??? ????: No way! Forget it! You'll get nothing from me!

Now, thanks to U.S. movies, you can flip someone the bird (extend your middle finger) and everyone will get the message -- loud and clear.

Squinting or narrowing your eyes -- ?????? ????? -- has several meanings. Sometimes it means that the person is thinking hard about something, but it can also mean skepticism or ire. In our body language, it can mean concentration, but also skepticism or deviousness.

Shutting and opening your eyes -- an obvious blink -- is an eye exclamation point. This seems to be primarily a female facial gesture. Someone might tell you a juicy piece of gossip and then blink once as if to say: How about that!

Having practiced these gestures as you read, now turn around and read the body language of your co-workers, who have been observing you. Wide open eyes indicate astonishment and gales of laughter indicate that your standing in the firm has just plummeted.


Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.