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And You! On:2001-11-10 12:36:41

There is an old saying “Less is more” and it is nicely illustrated, I think, by a comparison of the obscene gestures current in The States, the United Kingdom and in France.

I arrived at this amazing insight late last night, while I was squirming about an embarrassing incident that was stubbornly refusing join my repressed memory syndrome.

Very early in my American period I was teaching Maths at a certain high school and we got on to the subject of calendars and the seasons and I was desperately looking around for some visual teaching aids when I noticed my hands, so without a second’s thought I balled my right hand into a representation of the Sun and held it up for the class to see. Then I did the same with my left hand to represent the Earth orbiting around it and (and I thought that this bit was inspired genius) I demonstrated the season-bringing tilted axis of the Earth by the obvious step of raising my middle finger. I even did little spirally motions of my Earth hand to show the Earth’s diurnal rotation as I moved it round my Sun hand. I was so proud of this bit of inspired teaching: that I could achieve so much with so little!!

...You know that weird feeling you get when something is obviously wrong, but you don’t quite know what it is ...yet. Well my class was having hysterics, I had them rolling in the aisles. If I hadn’t dropped my hands to my sides in surprise some of them would probably have ended up in the nurse’s office or perhaps even the ER.
That was the first time I realised that your rude gestures might not be exactly the same as ours.
Of course now I know all about the one fingered salute; the giving of the finger; the flipping of the bird and how obscene it is and how hedged with taboo.

It is, interestingly, much worse in your society than the equivalent Great British gesture with twice as many fingers but with perhaps half the effect. Think of World War II and Churchill’s V-for VictoryVE V sign. Whilst he did it reversed, with his palm outward, there wasn’t a serviceman or woman who didn’t get the implication---I know, I checked with both my parents. I couldn’t imagine an American President doing anything like that, or even suggesting your gesture in the slightest (I know, I know, I’ve seen that Bush photo on the internet too, but I’m sure it’s doctored)

And finally, the greatest effort with the least effect.
Years ago I was in the little French town of Avranches with Becky (a girlfriend of that era). We’d hiked from Mont Saint Michel where we’d been the previous day, and then spent the afternoon in that sweet little museum at Avranches looking at their mediaeval Mss (including a fine Old French translation of the Georgics---C13 if I remember aright and of course their copy of Abelard’s ‘Sic et Non’. Aaaah!

...Oh sorry where was I, Oh Yeah!) and then we went to find the Camping Site (mentioned in the official International Camping Guide) wandering all over the town following the big International Road Signs for Camping... to the tiny triangle of unhappy grass next to the sports centre. Surely this couldn’t be the end point of all those signs? There was an old Gallic gentleman pottering onto his bike and certainly, by his caretakerly demeanour, the caretaker, we asked him, and with a Gallic mumble, and an impressive Gallic shrug he indicated our triangle “Ici”. Well what do we do about paying? He looked about for a long moment for an invisible authority, unsuccessfully, and then indicated that we probably didn’t really have to bother too much, by performing the full French equivalent of your finger and our fingers using both forearms and at least one elbow, and, you know, it might actually have been weaker than that Gallic shrug.

So there is clearly an inverse relationship between the body mass involved in the gesture and its perceived wickedness. It runs from the X-rated mere finger of the States through Britain’s R-rated bi-digital to the French involving the whole arm and hardly rating a PG-13.

Cheerio for now from
Richard Howland-Bolton

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