Saturday, April 07, 2007

Pantomime: the pop-opera of gesture talk

There are many challenges that come with living in a nation that doesn't share your mother tongue. It's new, exciting, and hands down the best place to study another language. It makes for fun adventures and the sense of being someplace new. Of course, it can also make for some added challenge. The simplest tasks - asking directions, buying personal items, trying to avoid being arrested - often come with an added level of difficulty.

A famous psychologist once claimed that over 90% of meaning that we express is through means other than the words that we say - that tone of voice and non-verbal communication express most of what we want to say.

This is a bit of a misquotation, actually. What our friend (whose name is Albert Mehrabian, by the way) meant is that we tend to trust non-verbal cues more than the words people say when it comes to making basic judgements about their emotional messages. For example:

Brent (Smiling warmly and clapping you on the shoulder): I hate that you did that!

Would you think I was really upset, or do I sound sarcastic? I think you'd figure out that I'm not angry unless I sound/look angry. Nonetheless, understanding non-verbal cues can only take you so far for determining how much people like you in a foreign nation. Learning the language is the best way to make yourself understood. The only problem is the fact that it takes many long hours of studying to learn a language - up to five or ten thousand hours to become fluent. I guarantee that you will need supplies from the grocery store before well before you'll know how to describe what you're looking for.

So what does that leave?


Living in a land without speaking the language quickly transforms you. You become a dramatic genius capable of describing anything from beer to bus stops with a series of exaggerated gestures. Who knew that unit on clowning from theatre school would ever come in so handy!?!

Here are some things I have managed to acquire through the use of gesture-language. Like any form of language, some concepts are easier to explain than others...

Beginner items are pretty straightforward - you basically mime using the item.
Toothbrush: Brushing
Shampoo* Washing
Tie: Tie-ing

Intermediate items sometimes take several motions together.
Fire Extinguisher (Fire Motion + Spraying Motion + No More Fire Motion)
Re-entry to the train station after taking the wrong exit (Pointing, Walking, Looking, No + Friends, Pointing, Walking Back)

Advanced items need gestures other than the ones you might think of first.
Toilet Paper: Squatting + Spinning the roll + making a Wad.

Sometimes advanced items require a small amount of bravado.
Pearl Rabbit: Make steady, ever-so-slightly-sheepish eye contact with the clerk. Hold up an arm. Make a buzzing sound. Nod.

Sidebar: I had a shy friend who always wanted a rabbit. I have little shame, so I volunteered to get it. The poor, poor saleswoman was *quite* taken aback, but eventually quite helpful in finding said product.

Of course, sometimes additional problems are created with the whole gesture thing, as people from other lands often use other gestures. Take the OK sign, for example. You know, the one where you connect your index finger to your thumb and show the "O". Seems pretty straightforward, right?

In Japan, that gesture means "Money".

So, imagine if someone wants your help with something. They a fact they communicate to you through gestures. Flash the OK sign? Yeah... you just said "I'll help you if you give me some money." Not so good. But things could be worse: PLEASE don't flash that "OK" in the Middle East. Apparently, in that part of the world, it means "You're an Asshole".

I suppose this is all very academic. So, class, let's take a look at a fun real-world example of trying to puzzle things out!

This is a music video for a song called "Yatta". If you speak a bit of Japanese, you might be able to puzzle out some of the things this song. Of course, if you can speak a bit of Japanese, you have advanced well beyond the whole "gesture to buy beer stage", and this is all old news to you. Thanks for reading along with the rest of the crowd!

Fun exercise:

1) Watch the video. Try to figure out what they "#!#$&! they are singing about.

Any ideas?
You may have concluded that they were happy about something. Why that caused them to dance around nearly naked in front of thousands of people is probably a longer gesture story than the one you got. Even with some letters and a few of the "lucky" English phrases that Japanese pop stars love to throw in to their music, I was bloody lost after watching this.

2) Ok - now watch it again with subtitles.

Pretty different, eh? They ARE being ridiculously cheerful, so you can see that your non-verbal communication is doing ok. The finer points are pretty unique though.

Now you're reasonably emotionally prepared for the experience of living with a foreign language. Definitely partially ready. 100% somewhat equipped.

Ah, you'll figure it out. Regardless, you might want to remember this ideaif you have an upcoming trip to a nation that doesn't share your native tongue. Along with that phrasebook, you might think about pre-scripting some short skits to describe your favourite goods and services.


1) Pantomime: a form of theatre populated with sterotypes and generally performed during the holidays to family audiences. Much like my life, Pantomime is often full of very subtle cross dressing, and dirty themes. Mainly it sounds funnier than the word "Mime" - which is "to perform without speaking" and what I actually used to explain myself.

2) exacerbate means "to make something worse"

3) Pantomime: a stage show that doesn't involve any words.

4) ever-so-slightly-sheepish : a tiny bit embarrassed.

5) I believe in giving due credit - those two vids came from my dear buddy Geoff Cross.


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

check out this and AIDS education video posted by a friend of mine while he was in China. the first two shots will give away the context and it does have small Enlgish subtitles, so there is no mystery. but the incongruity of the happiness and the problems still took my breath away. check it out.

Merry Man In Japan said...

By the way, if anyone wants to shop for those rabbits, you can get them at Don Quixote (ドンケイオテ) in Shinjuku. 2nd floor, near the elevators.

: )

ed said...

This reminds me of a time, years ago, in a small village in Mongolia. We were on a diplomatic aid mission so we were being treated quite well, a tour of the attractive russian concrete architecture, an exciting exihibit of mongolian wrestling (not that dissimilar to sumo wrestling except they wear vests and toss cheese) and were preparing to sit down for a delicious repast of all the mare's milk ale and sheep fat we could stomach- but i had to pee. I had to pee bad. I'm pretty good at the whole sign language thing, but that one had me stumped. My initial attempts got me to a sink in the kitchen where I could wash my hands- obviously the washing hands gesture wasn't working. Did i mention that I was dealing with little old ladies? which kinda precluded the 'sticking my hand down my pants and dangling an index finger out my zipper' move that might have worked elsewhere. Eventually I made some vague pointing motions at my penis and got shown to the foulest outhouse I have ever had the displeasure of visiting and I've used outhouses at Lollapalooza. Apparently my discomfort was a great source of amusement to the little old ladies who carried on about it for some time. And when I finally got back to the table, well-drained, with a lingering perfume of excrement, hands washed it the sink, all the other english-speaking bastards on the mission wanted to know where the toilet was. I was only too happy to give directions.
The leasson learned? Always, and i mean always, learn how to ask for beer and the toilet in the native tongue. Nothing else really matters.

ed said...

One of the dudes in that video used to have a late night show were he wrestled girls and they tried to get closups of panties.. Can't find that video right now, but in the meantime you might enjoy this