Last month we talked a lot about etiquette and how different cultures convey respect, or at least convey the expectation that respect will be given.
But sometimes, what you really want is for your characters to be horrifically rude to one another.
As with words, gestures of contempt are powered more by intent than by inherent meaning. A gesture that’s innocuous or even respectful in one culture might be a grave insult in another — and in fact, you can turn the former into the latter by performing it insincerely. As they say in social justice discussions, intent is not magic; if I accidentally do something offensive, the fact that I didn’t mean to doesn’t erase that moment of shock and hurt. But intent does still say something about the person responsible, and when it comes to cross-cultural ideas of vulgar behavior, it’s often the main factor making one gesture totally crass while another is nothing special.
Take the middle finger. In a lot of Western countries, extending it while folding the other fingers is a non-verbal insult. But not in all cases; some people will use that instead of the index finger when pointing at something on a page. Directionality makes a difference to how the gesture is interpreted. Simlarly, I was once telling a story to a pair of Brits over dinner and held up my index and middle fingers to indicate two of something — whereupon one of the Brits reached across the table and turned my hand around so my palm was facing outward, not inward. I had forgotten that the V-sign with an inward palm is the British equivalent of the middle finger. It’s a tiny difference, but one that matters.
If you go digging for some underlying meaning to explain why these things are offensive, it can often be difficult to find. The middle finger, being (usually) the longest of the set, has a long and storied history of representing the phallus, which goes some way toward explaining why it has a vulgar connotation; it’s also associated with magic for the same reason. The OK sign, with the index finger and thumb forming a circle, also has offensive meaning in some places because of sexual implications — but in Arab countries it’s a sign of the evil eye instead. And why the V-sign? The old tale that it dates back to the medieval wars between England and France, with the French cutting two fingers off captured English longbowmen to prevent them from using their weapons again, doesn’t hold water. (They cut off three fingers, not two, and the gesture is probably a lot more recent than some medieval Englishman saying “screw you; I can still shoot” anyway.) Or take the euphemistically named bras d’honneur, the “arm of honor,” where you raise one fist (again with the palm inward) and slap that bicep with your other hand. Is that a symbolic threat, saying you’re going to punch them? We don’t know.
In fact, I sometimes think that nearly any hand position can be taken as offensive, if there’s a cultural belief backing it. Forming a fist with your thumb between your index and middle fingers? In the United States you’re pretending you stole someone’s nose . . . but in Italy that used to be called the “fig sign,” and it represented female genitalia. Spreading all your fingers and, in a reversal of the usual pattern, turning your palm toward somebody else? You might just be waving, or doing jazz hands — but if you’re in Greece that’s the mountza, and it has the connotation of a curse. Even more so if you do it with both hands, one stacked behind the other. (Apparently if you want to signal “five” in Greece, it’s safer to turn your palm inward, reversing my “two” mistake described above.) In the Mediterranean and Latin America, the “sign of the horns,” with the index and pinkie fingers extended, makes use of both directions; swiveling back and forth is a way of indicating that someone is a cuckold.
What fascinates me is how many of these things carry a double meaning. Go back further in Italian history to ancient Rome, and the sign of the fig was used to ward off evil spirits. This isn’t incompatible with the anatomical symbolism; both male and female genitalia have been used to scare away demons or ill fortune, and in Irish mythology the women of Emain disrupt Cu Chulainn’s battle frenzy by flashing their breasts at him.
Some vulgar gestures have a clear antecedent, though. Looking to the Middle East again, we find that shoes and the soles of the feet are considered dirty (quite sensibly so), which means that showing them to someone is an insult. Remember all those Iraqis hitting the statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes? That was a massive, public display of contempt. Therefore, sitting with one foot across the other knee, or with your feet outstretched, is one of the ways Westerners often give accidental offense to Arabs. Similarly, quite a lot of cultures associate the left hand with either evil or sanitary purposes, which means that handing something over or receiving it with the left hand alone is crass.
In fiction, you can sell just about anything as contemptuous so long as the characters react to it appropriately. You can give it a cultural underpinning if you want; the story about longbows and the V-sign may not be true in reality, but in a story something along those lines could be a great touch of historical depth. In many cases, though, trying to explain why the gesture is offensive would probably turn into an unnecessary infodump. Instead it can just be like the line from Shakespeare: “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” We don’t need to know why biting the thumb is an insult for it to work in the scene. We just need to know whether this is a mild way of saying “screw you” or something to fight a duel over, whether it’s just vulgar or a sign that the other person is placing a curse. The intent and the reaction will tell us all that’s necessary.