Do you know what a Japanese means when he scratches his head sticking out his tongue? That’s the Japanese body language which is completely different from that of the West.
Different cultures mean different communication means. If the culture is different, the body language used in the day to day communication is of course different too.
Here are some examples of Japanese peculiar body language and the meaning of each gesture.
Scratch one’s head when embarrassed
In the West, scratching your head implies frustration or irritation, but in Japan people pretend to scratch or just pat their heads when they are embarrassed. This gesture often comes with tongue sticking out and/or shrugging.
However, don’t do this gesture looking frustrated because it will just make you look literally frustrated even in Japan. Meanings of gestures differ depending on how you do them. If you want to make yourself look embarrassed, you should make an embarrassed expression.
Stick out tongue to offend others
This might be a bit difficult to imagine, but if you pull your lower eyelid downwards with your index finger while your stick out your tongue, that means you are trying to (jokingly and not too seriously) offend the person you are talking to.
For example, if your mom takes away your snacks and hides them when you were about to have them, you might do the sign to express your resent.
When the Japanese do this sign, they often say “akkan beh.” I tried to look up the meaning of this phrase, but it seemed its origin was uncertain. One hypothesis says that it comes from the word “akkan” (rogue) and people used this sign to show their disgust against them, but I’m not quite sure what this “beh” means then. It might mean “one” to make the whole phrase “a bad one” together.
Note that this is usually considered to be a children’s gesture, and adults doing this might look childish. If you are grown up and don’t want to make yourself look childish, I would recommend that you do not do this. There are a certain number of adults that do this, so I could be wrong, but that’s how they look to me.
Bow whenever they are thankful, sorry or want to greet someone
As most of you guys probably know, the Japanese bow very often. Bowing is very convenient and can be used in all occasions–from greeting to apologizing.
When someone does something good for you, lower your head slightly to show gratitude. When you did something wrong, just do the same. Of course you can use the same gesture when you meet or say goodbye to someone.
When you bow, you don’t have to look at the person’s eyes you are bowing to. Not looking at people’s eyes is rather a good manner and it’s totally fine. Looking at people’s eyes is sometimes even considered offensive in Japan. This culture keeps changing and younger people look at the eyes of others, but you don’t have to do so. Some old people feel offended if others look at their eyes, so it would be better if you wouldn’t look at them.
Cover one’s mouth when they are ashamed or just when they laugh
In Japan, when they are ashamed, embarrassed or just feel funny, they cover their mouth to hide their teeth.
I guess it’s because showing your teeth in front of others is rude or lacks style in Japan. If you look at ancient Japanese drawings, you will notice that nobles hide their mouth with a hand fan.
Note that this gesture is only used when their teeth are exposed. If you are ashamed but you look serious and don’t show your teeth, you don’t need to cover your mouth.
Nod so many times while they are listening or talking
The Japanese nod very often. Usually, nodding represents that you understand or agree on what the person you are talking to said, but the use of nodding in Japan isn’t only limited to that. They nod even when they don’t agree or don’t understand.
Also, when they nod while they are listening to someone else, the gesture only means that they are listening, and doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand or agree. Since they nod so many times when you talk, you might feel as if they totally agree on what you are saying, but at the end, the Japanese might say no (implicitly) after all the nods.
If you have a chance to visit Japan, watch carefully how the locals behave and you might be able to witness some of these Japanese body languages.
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