Are rude gestures universal? The simple answer is no. Even with movies, and cellphones, and more things connecting cultures around the world, what is seen and communicated as shocking and offensive in one culture, doesn’t necessarily mean it will carry the same meaning in another. I recently had a moment during a team meeting with my citizen co-workers, where I was reminded of this. Our team was all sitting around the room debriefing after a conclusion of an outreach which ended with drama about the death and resurrection of Christ.
Kosam had the floor and he was talking about about what we do when we teach and preach and act should not distract from the main point about Jesus and who he is. He reinforced his point with visual demonstration. I will try and put his actions in parenthesis to help you picture this. As he sat there across from me, he said something to this effect, “Jesus is the important character, He needs to be bigger and above the others.” (He held up his hand, palm facing himself, back of his hand outward, towards me).
He continued, “If all the other characters have big parts or are ‘on stage’ for a long time, then people will see the other characters as equals to Jesus, and this is not good.” (He continuing to hold his had like he had, he made sure the tops of all his fingers were at equal heights).
“But it needs to be like this. Jesus is the most important. And He should be seen more. And he should be seen as more significant than the other characters.” (Here he kept his middle finger high, and yes, lowered all the rest.)
So yes, there I was in Team Meeting with one of my co-workers, how shall I say, innocently ‘flipping me the bird’ – or however you care to put it in English. Which as you can see, was not his intention at all. Far from it! Well, even though I know that he has no idea what it is that I am seeing, nor what it means to me or someone from an American culture, it still takes everything within me not to ‘say something’. Even after all these years, when any number of my co-workers will ‘point’ to something with their middle fingers, . . . well, we still get little shocks to the system. Some cross-cultural things you just never get used to! But it gives me a good opportunity to remember while we are from different cultures, we are one in Christ.
Let me re-iterate, I was in no way offended by what he was doing, because he had no idea and he was doing it completely innocently – in fact, he thought he had a pretty good illustration, and for his culture, he did! It is just that some cultural signals are pretty deeply ingrained in us. We all tend to interpret things through our own filters (the cultural grid we were raised in).
Sometimes it takes a little shock to the system to remind me that indeed Christ is the most important. So the next time you see someone trying to insult someone else in our American culture, just use it as a reminder. Yep, Christ is still the most important! And he died for that person too.