Today, on our return from marketing, I saw a man on a bicycle greet a friend. As they passed, one gave the other the standard non-verbal Costa Rican howdy-do, a raised arm, in a sort of reverse chopping motion, a flick of the wrist, and the index finger snapped forward. It’s fluid and concise. If you have lived in Costa Rica long enough, you will recognize it as, “Hi, I’m headed this way to do some things.” If he had held his index finger up and rotated it in a small circle he would have meant, “I’m not going far and I’ll be right back.”
I thought about all the hand gestures we have learned since living here, and it occurred to me that many of them probably resulted from distant communications, opposite ends of a pasture, for example, or perhaps from fishing boat to fishing boat.
Anyway, I thought I’d share a few. They are good to know and can keep you from using your own culture’s signals, which can get you into trouble in certain situations, and I’ll speak to that a little later.
This one is ubiquitous. I used it just last week when I tried to do some banking. The place was so jammed with leftover Christmas vacationers that I turned and left without completing my transaction. As I headed out the door, a woman was approaching the bank. I gathered all the fingers on my right hand, raised them, made a pinching motion, and shook my hand a bit. She groaned but went in anyway. But she knew, because I forewarned her, the place was full of people.
Only once, we saw this signal used with the man’s hand stretched out in front. The driver of the car looked directly at us and insistently opened and closed the fingers in a kind of snapping motion. We had no idea what the hell he was trying to tell us, and besides we were concentrating on turning left, cross traffic, to pull into a restaurant parking lot. The same lot he had just pulled out of. When we finally parked, we discovered the restaurant was dark and padlocked. Ah, he was telling us, “It’s closed.”
Here are a few more:
The fist is closed with thumb and index finger held up to form a small space like a “C” and means “ahorita,” surely one of the most loosely translated terms in history of languages. Theoretically, ahorita means “right now,” or, more accurately, “in a minute.” But ahorita can stretch into hours, and the time frame is entirely in the mind of the person using it. Here is a nice explanation of the conflicting meanings of the word.
This same hand gesture means “give me a little chance” and is sometimes seen on an arm extended out a driver’s window, the driver hoping you will fall back in the crush of traffic so he can wedge his car in front of yours.
That’s the polite version.
The more insistent signal, a favorite among taxistas, is the same arm extended out the window, but the arm hangs down by the side of the door. The driver then stiffens the arm and shows you his entire palm, fingers tightly together, and begins gesturing as though pushing you back. This says, “Beware, because I am coming over into your lane, like it or not.”
Here is where your own culture can get you in trouble. Americans use the one finger “come here” gesture, like the one pictured, but in Costa Rica this means, “I think you are sexy, and I want to get to know you in a carnal way.”
To ask someone to come over and speak to you, the signal is almost the reverse. Rotate the hand so fingers point down and then use four fingers together in a brushing motion toward yourself. It’s very subtle and much more self-effacing.
But one of my favorites, and sadly I could not find a suitable photo or drawing– it would need YouTube– is used when no further assistance will be offered you, because… really, it is beyond the control of the person to help. In fact, it may be assumed the powers of the universe have conspired to block your path. Nothing to be done. Sorry.
It is our version of the shoulder shrug, but Costa Ricans, being who they are, have made it so much more expressive, and it shows the receiver just how futile it all is.
So, pull both hands up to your chest, the standard stick’um up position, palms facing outward.
Now, the next steps have to happen simultaneously and with practice you can really put some drama into it. Rotate the palms up and outward (It can’t be helped). Shrug your shoulders (Really, it’s not my fault). Now frown slightly (I’ve tried my best, but the universe says it can’t be done).
I see this gesture far more than I’d like.
When all else fails, the middle finger is far and away the most international sign. My husband has given it to some of those taxistas who bully their way around in city traffic. It’s not advised, though.
So you can practice those and next time I will tell you a bit about my current problem. Gusanos