Gesture Phobia

As I’m sure you don’t need to be told, gestures can go a long way toward communicating when you don’t know the word. I very easily bought a power adapter for my laptop on my second day in China, not because I knew how to say the words, but because I took my power cord into the store and did a plugging in motion with it saying “I want to buy a thing” over and over.

But, just a warning, you may not be so lucky as to be the recipient of non-verbal communication when there’s something you don’t understand.

As and example, in my first or second week in China, a friend and I were buying some cookies. We successfully ordered the two kinds we wanted. The lady behind the counter asked us if we wanted “yīqǐ” 一起 or “fēnkāi” 分开.

Those choices didn’t sound like either of the flavors we’d ordered and we just kind of stared at each other. I asked her what “fēnkāi” 分开 meant and she launched into an elaborate explanation that neither of us could understand. I tried several guesses as to what these words might mean, but one thing was clear: she wasn’t going to move, and we weren’t getting our cookies until I answered her riddle correctly.

I finally just took a wild guess and said, “fēnkāi” 分开. She immediately started putting the cookies into two bags. Then she handed them two us one at a time and said “fēnkāi” 分开. The nickel dropped! Suddenly I remembered that “yīqǐ” 一起 meant “together” and I guessed “fēnkāi” 分开 must be separate.

As we biked home my friend and I tried to think of some easier concepts to convey using gestures. There were some, like “tall/short” and “happy/sad” but there was no way of escaping the fact that she could have cleared up the whole thing instantly with two simple gestures. She either refused, or it didn’t occur to her. What did occur to her was writing the hanzi characters for us, but that was obviously no help.

I noticed the same phenomenon in my English classes when we played a Taboo-style game. Students were trying to get their teammates to guess a word by doing anything besides saying the word itself. When a verb came up, they froze. I still remember this one student’s clues when her word was “dance.” She said, “It’s something girls like to do” (eat?). “No, no, no. In the bars” (drink?). “No, no, no. Ummm…ummm…” And then I saw a little dēngpào 灯泡 go on above her head and she started moving around. “What I’m doing now” (dancing?). “Yes!” The point is, acting it out was certainly her last resort.

So just a heads up, in a communication crunch many Chinese people seem to be gesture phobic. There may be cultural reasons for that, I don’t know. I do know that because of the myriad dialects in China, writing hanzi (on paper or one’s hand) usually clears things up between Chinese speakers. Not much help for beginners or even advanced speakers who don’t know the characters though.

But just because people around you are afraid of acting out things, doesn’t mean you have to be…


  1. That’s a great piece of advice about using gestures… it can fill in for lots of things very easily.
    Also, I’ve found the best solution is the one you used… if you aren’t sure just pick one… unless it’s something really important.

  2. I had similar experiences. They are willing to help and just flood you with words. It’s somehow not intuitive for chinese to answer same style as you ask – with some simple words that hold the essence. They are pretty good with understanding gestures, though.

  3. Yeah, for some people, it seems to “click” with them that I’m foreign and might need them to speak slowly and use simple words and gestures, others I don’t know why, but they just barrel full steam ahead.

    Some of my favorite people are the ones who are willing to “show me.” When I was brand new in China, we often went to a tiny restaurant in the building next to ours. The food wasn’t very good, and they had NO English menu, but the waitress was awesome. She would literally bring ingredients out of the kitchen and show us what might be in the dish we had randomly pointed at, beacuse she KNEW we hadn’t a clue. Then she would teach us how to say them in Chinese. She was the reason we kept going back. (and the reason I can say more food in Chinese than pretty much anything else)

    Perhaps we could learn how to say in Chinese “please show me” or somehow communicate to them that we need them to help us out by gesturing? I often get the written hanzi as an explanation too, and they are simply shocked when I tell them I can’t read it!

  4. The dictionary gives me 表演 biǎo yǎn for “perform / act / play / show / performance / exhibition / demonstrate”

    Does anybody know if this might be the magic phrase? Perhaps I will try it out next time I’m in that sort of situation and see if I get the :blink, blink: of incomprehension or if they really act it out for me.


  5. Nicki, while I think it would be endearing if someone asked me to ‘biao yan’ something so they can understand it, I think you might get funny looks from other Chinese people. ‘biao yan’ has more to do with actual performing in a theater, show, or television than casual “act it out.” I’m not really sure what the proper phrase in Chinese would be in this situation.

  6. I’ve noticed this too… in a conversation, when I answer “wo bu dong” (I don’t understand) the person I am talking to seems to talk faster and use more words! Gestures do seem to be a last resort (or no resort). I put this down to the Chinese people where I am not being used to explaining things for foreigners.

  7. Hand and facial gestures (I read somewhere) are considered crude or even rude in Chinese culture. Thus they are avoided and not encouraged as children grow up. Adults then don’t have a great deal of skills when it comes to expressing themselves with gestures. Therefore you will always see some reluctance when it comes to this. I own a language school and just observe a first Italian class compared to the first day of a Mandarin lesson, and you’ll know what I mean.

  8. Oh my God you are definitely onto something here! It does drive me a little mad sometimes when Chinese people talk faster and use more words when trying to explain something (though there are exceptions of course and those are usually my more preferred language exchange partners!). My theory is it comes down to their lack of experience in communicating with foreigners. In Australia we speak to non-native English speakers almost every day (especially if you live in one of the capital cities – if you don’t you’re from the rural areas and thus probably speak slowly by default anyway :P). Thus we tend to slow down a bit when we talk to people from other countries and use gestures where appropriate. Great post!

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