Let Your Fingers Do the Talking
photo by korayatasoy

“Suzanne, come!” My boss barked at me, holding out her arm and shaking her wrist  downward, like she was nodding her hand.  My brain froze, unable to decipher the seemingly contradictory commands.   She grabbed my hand and pulled me into a classroom to hide me me from students she had told I was ill in order to free up my afternoon.  She placed her arms against the the door before raising a finger to her lips. “Shh,” she whispered.  “Be quiet.”  But there was no need, this was a gesture I understood.

To my American eyes, when she had wanted me to come, it looked like she was gesturing for me to sit, and it took a moment of proccessing to remember that the Turkish gesture for come is a downward scooping motion that can easily mistaken for the Western “Take a seat” sign.  Learning the words is one thing, much regardless of our level of Turkish, body language is a huge part of communication, especially since it usually subconscious, ingrained in us by our cultures.  While it’s difficult to get it down perfectly, but a few kints go a long way.

Yes and no gestures come up the most frequently.  When a street vendor i was trying to dodge asked if I was foreign, I simple shook my head, thinking my accent was too strong to pass as Turkish.  I immediately wanted to slap my forehead, a gesture that does carry the same meaning in Turkish, as a Turk shakes her head to express confusion.  My Turkish friends assure me that many Turks do shake their heads no as an imitation of Western gestures, but experience has shown me that a side to side shake results in explanations.  Yes is expressed by nodding the head, but the emphasis must be on the downward stroke, as lifting the head means no, sometimes accompanied by a tongue click.

Before my father met any of my “uncles,” for example, I warned him that the might knock heads with him.  A deer hunter, I think he had something different in mind from the temple bump he recieved, a manyl, and I’m told nationalist, version of the traditional cheek kisses.  For my part, I had to adjust from bear hugs to “double hugs”, where dear friends would switch sides in the middle of the embrace.  Coming most recently from southern Europe, I also learned to cut my cheek kisses from three to two, and eventually to eliminate the kisses altogether for a more sophisticated cheek brush to match my friends’.

I’ve read complex explanations about expressing measurement, but I haven’t found it to be much of an issue.  Holding two fingers apart in the air to indicate length is  vaguely obscene, but laying your palm in your elbow is offensive, so usual the usual travel guide suggestion of measuring length on your forearm is also risky.  The best option is holding open pals in the air at the distance desired.

While it is possible to hail a cab by waving or raising a hand in the air, the more subtle locals hold their arm out at the hip at a 45 degree angle. Using this gesture is usually convincing enough to make the driver assume I’ll recognize where I’m going.

Meet the author


Originally from the US, Suzanne has lived in many places, but none that have captivated her quite like Istanbul.  She first moved here to earn her master's in 2008, and can't imagine living anywhere else.  An English-teaching, US correspondence-writing, Turkish-learning aspiring diplomat, she enjoys sunflower seeds, Skype, and the surprises each day here brings.