Saturday, June 25, 2005


Today I got to the page in the textbook that teaches a little about gestures. There is a series of pictures of people using various gestures, and the students are supposed to try to match them up with the meanings. These gestures included pointing, beckoning, waving, and a few others, including two the students had real trouble with: crossed fingers, and winking.

These two gestures are not used in Japan, and many of my students mixed them up. They guessed that winking meant Good luck! and crossed fingers meant I'm joking!

I thought the textbook didn't go far enough in explaining these gestures, and told the students that if you crossed your fingers behind your back, it meant that you were lying. They liked that one. I then explained that this gesture comes from the Christian tradition: that it was a way of making the sign of the Christian cross. You ask for blessings (and luck) from God when you cross your fingers, and when you hide your crossed fingers behind your back and lie you are warding off the devil, who will take your soul for doing something so naughty. Actually I just made that up on the spot, I added, showing them my crossed fingers - but it COULD be true. I would look it up and tell them for sure next week.

I then told them that winking doesn't only mean I'm joking, at least not where I'm from. It is often a gesture of complicity. I didn't know quite how to explain that in simple English, so since they had told me that nobody uses the wink gesture in Japan, and it didn't have any meaning for them, I thought I'd demonstrate. I winked knowingly at the student sitting nearest me. He went beet red and flopped forward onto his desk in a paroxysm of uncontrolled giggling.

I pointed at him, amazed.

"Why did he do that?" I asked the class. "You said winking didn't mean anything in Japan! Are you sure?"

They said they were sure, but they were all grinning. I wondered if it was just that one student, and winked at another one. She went pink and collapsed into helpless giggles.

I stared. "It DOES mean something, doesn't it? YOU'RE TRICKING ME!" I accused the class.

They assured me they were not tricking me, although they were all laughing by now. I asked them why they were laughing and they said they didn't know. I told them to hold up their hands. None of their fingers were crossed. Two or three held their hands in front of their faces, afraid that I would wink at them, too.

I decided not to tell them that winking is also sometimes a flirtatious gesture, albeit not a very serious one. I had embarrassed at least two of my students quite enough.

But I still don't get it. If winking doesn't mean anything to them, why does it affect them so powerfully?

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Cheryl said...


melinama said...

Maybe because you looked very very cute whilst winking.

Megan said...

I bet the flirtation translates whether or not they know the meaning. Either that, or you looked really hot doing it and they all instantly developed crushes on you but were embarrassed that they'd fallen for their teacher. Work it girl. ;)

carrie said...

this is a really cool entry!
winking has different meanings in different cultures, as do most gestures.
i've read a bunch of stuff about it in my anthropology classes, but it is cool that you have the opportunity to live it.

Robert said...

When I was very young, my babysitter was a winker. I have a crush on her to this day because of it.

Mary said...

sometimes i can get my chihuahua to wink, if i repeatedly do it for a minute or so.

ah, the power of the wink.