It was somewhat comical, actually. Awaiting the start of an event in a large arena, a woman seated in the row immediately in front of me suddenly stood and began waving her hands and arms in an exaggerated manner. After a minute or two of her efforts to gain someone’s attention, she sat down and bemoaned, “I guess he can’t see me.”
In her defense, she may have sent him a text message identifying the section in which she was seated. I had to laugh, however, at her conclusion, seated in an arena with approximately 10,000 other people. She was correct; even knowing the section, being seen from across the stadium amongst all those people would be unlikely.
Besides that, she could have been arrested! Well, in the Philippines, anyway, where arm waving is considered an unacceptable gesture, punishable by imprisonment unless attempting to call the attention of an animal.
In many Greek and African cultures, hand-waving with the palm facing outward is considered highly offensive and should be avoided. In South Korea the common practice of hand waving is to do so with a vertical motion, palm facing downward. While more and more this gesture has become a greeting among the youth of that culture, it generally was used to call someone’s attention.
Shaking hands and waving as a greeting seems to have originated from the military salute. In the 18th century knights would use their right hand to remove the guard from their helmet when approaching another person, followed by a salute. These actions were meant to demonstrate that there was no weapon in hand and that their intention was a peaceful one. The traditional handshake had the same meaning, indicating that the hand was empty of weaponry.
In the Arab culture, showing the sole of one’s shoe to another person is considered disrespectful. First, the foot is the lowest part of the body. Second, the shoe protects the leg from dirt and dust, serving as a kind of slave for the feet. Hence, to sit across from someone with the sole of the shoe facing that person is offensive, showing disrespect and disregard.
Could it be that an innocent cultural faux pas led to the outbreak of war? Not likely, but surviving in an unfamiliar culture is not as simple as one might imagine. A simple friendly gesture in America — such as waving to another person — could mean something altogether different in another country.
For the most part, a smile is properly understood universally. The same may be said for several facial expressions. In world where communication is vital to ongoing human relations, words and behaviors have often caused more confusion than clarity of meaning. The expressions of emotion, however, are rarely mistaken. If you know how to smile, then you can ‘speak’ any language.
Research has proved that the smile is so well understood that even a child blind from birth, having never seen a smile, instinctively smiles with the emotions of satisfaction, joy, or happiness. The late Glen Campbell was the first to record the Sapaugh/Austin song, “Try a Little Kindness,” and the song brought him much success. A smile demonstrates kindness, and it originates from within one’s heart and mind.
Gospel music’s Harold Lane wrote a song about happy faces that in part conveyed, “The world didn’t give it to me, and the world can’t take it away.” Stanley Gordon West wrote, “Smile and the world smiles with you.” So let’s speak each other’s language and smile together.
Steven Callis is the minister at First Church of the Nazarene in Douglasville.