Smiles which signify submission and enjoyment to others are a great example of a universal expression. As mentioned not all gestures, however, have a universal origin, but one that does is the shoulder shrug. The shrug is done by bringing the shoulders up, drawing the head in, and turning the palms upwards so as to reveal that nothing is hidden. The shoulder shrug can also demonstrate submission or that what is being said isn’t understood as in “I don’t know” or “I don’t get it”. Pointing finds its place all over the world to indicate direction or to emphasis a point. However, even the pointing gesture shows variation across culture as some will point with the index finger, others will use the middle finger and yet others still will point with a closed fist and use the thumb to indicate. Most cultures find pointing rude altogether, but others are more tolerant of its use. Where the middle finger is seen as a rude gesture, using it to point can be extremely off-putting and should be avoided.
Another gesture that has roots in various cultures is the beckoning signal whereby the index finger is curled upwards repetitively, with the palm facing up and the remaining fingers clenched. It means “come here”. In Africa and Spanish speaking countries the entire hand can be used and includes all four fingers whereas in Sicily the entire hand is waved palm down in a sweeping motion as if to drag the person in. The Japanese have a similar gesture, but the four fingers are used with the palm facing the target and is placed at head height. The fingers are then pulled inward toward the palm. To Americans and Europeans, it might be confused with waving rather than beckoning primarily due to the height of the hand. This gesture is found in the Maneki Neko which is the “beckoning cat” a symbolic figure. The beckoning cat also translates to the welcoming cat, lucky cat, money cat or fortune cat.
Most gestures, however, are heavily culturally driven and are therefore learned. They are transferred through time by their use. Gestures are obvious to locals, but to visitors the gestures often means something else altogether. With globalization and ubiquitous media the nonverbal gap is shrinking all the time. If the trend continues gestures will become more and more universal. As regional medias become more uniform, so too does the body language. Even a country kid knows how to act in a congested downtown city core from what they’ve seen in movies and on television. Even isolated rural cultures including native tribes, absent of modern media are seeing more and more visitors via tourism every year serving to assimilate their gestures.