Thumbs Up! Spanning the Cultural Divide

Those who know me will know that I have two great loves: data quality and squash (the sport, not the fruit!).

I often attend international tournaments, and as my ageing body refuses more and more often to drag itself around the court, I regularly find myself refereeing instead.

With enclosed courts it’s often necessary to use hand signals to tell the players what’s going on as they cannot hear the referee. It’s a tradition that, on game or match point, the referee knocks on the back wall.

Cultural Confusion

When this happens in Germany, it is often accompanied with a thumbs up signal, which I always took to mean “good shot” or “everything OK”. It took me some time to realize that this symbol in Germany actually indicates the number one, as in “one more point before the end of the game”.

A Japanese player would read that same thumb as a five, whereas the sign is a vulgar insult to Afghanis.

Worthless French Players

In the same way, if I am refereeing a game, I have to show the score and may face confusion.

If I indicate “zero” by creating a circle with my thumb and index finger, it suggests “worthless” to the French players, who are not always happy at my apparent assessment of their playing abilities; and for the Russians it’s an insult.

Finger Zinger

In indicating “one” I have to be careful about which finger I hold up (to avoid a gesture that originated in North America but is now widely recognised in the developed world).

To show “two” I hold up my index and middle fingers, carefully holding my palm towards the players to avoid an obscene gesture that the British would recognise, but which means nothing to most other cultures.

Perplexed German Faces

This is may be received with perplexed faces, as Germans, for example, start counting from their thumb, so they expect to see the thumb and index finger in this way:

It’s All Greek

I can nod to indicate assent … unless the player is Greek, and must take great care if I choose to wiggle any of my fingers in any particular way.

In fact, as if refereeing weren’t enough of a challenge (I had to train for a year and take several exams just to get the lowest certification), refereeing international matches becomes a potential cultural minefield.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because we all tend to view the world of others as though they are the same as our own. Even with my constant work with the differences between data from different peoples and places, it took a long time before it crossed my mind that a thumbs up signal in Germany didn’t mean the same thing as it does in the UK or USA.

International Forms of Address

In our daily lives we constantly approach tasks which have similar issues – creating web sites and web forms, sending packages across borders with the mail, building database structures, using people’s names with forms of address we know and use but ignoring theirs.

It is inevitable that you will not be able to take everything and everybody into account. What I have found useful, though, is to automatically question everything you do when dealing internationally.

If you assume that every assumption that you make is incorrect, and check ahead of time for the inevitable pitfalls, you will be on much safer ground.

For more information, download our free guide to understanding international data.