Hand gestures and behavioural protocols help complete the communicational repertoire in any culture. Without knowing the meanings behind the various signs, signals, actions and (appropriate) responses, we can be rendered partially ‘deaf’ when visiting someone else’s homeland. We can also become the unintentional instigators of minor international incidents too! It’s all part of being a dumb tourist.
Yes, Russia naturally has it’s own non-verbal quirks and foibles; a multitude of ways for us to “miss the point”. We will be taking a look at them over the next few blog posts.
Booze on tap
This is possibly the most famous/infamous gesture that also comfortably fits our stereotypical perception of Russians paired with alcohol. I am referring to the Russian “neck tap”, which sounds like some appalling form of gangland execution but is more likely associated with slow suicide by alcohol. Simply: it’s a tap or flick to the neck with the index finger or, for the less precise, the fist (possibly as the evening is wearing on and coordination becomes an issue)
So what does it mean and why? Well; just that drinking is happening, has happened or is about too. Specifically: we’re drinking/drunk, they are drinking/drunk, we/they are about to get “slaughtered” (that’s a Brit expression for incapacitation via alcohol, incidentally). Other liberal permutations on the same theme are also perfectly valid.
The gesture has an interesting origin dating back to the era of Peter The Great, who is said to have been so pleased with the work of a carpenter that he granted the tradesman use of the royal seal as a token for free drinks in any establishment throughout the Tsardom. Initially the seal was presented by the carpenter on a printed sheet – just as we might flash a pass.
Unfortunately this was roughly 300 or so years before the modern delights of plastic lamination, so imagine the lifespan of paperwork when exposed to a multitude of sodden pub crawls. What to do? Well, why not permanently etch it into your skin with a neck tattoo? How very Russian. Problem solved. So today, the devoted drinkers of Russia may honour the carpenter’s tale with a gesture towards their own imaginary tattoos, indicating the pursuit of a goal similar to the original sealbearer himself as he staggered on his zigg-zagged path into the St.Petersburg night.
I don’t give a fig
We are rolling out the stereotypes today: what other long-held Russian tradition can we drag out into the light? Well, bribery of course. Using a little something ‘extra’ to grease-the-wheel has long been part of the system. Arguably it’s part of any system. Here in the west: everybody does it – we just don’t talk about it, whereas in Russia they fly it on flagpoles, print it on t-shirts and generally wave it around in the street (naturally, that’s all in the metaphorical sense). Imagine a system where you are allowed to declare expenses for bribes in your property construction accounts – or so a second hand tale about Soviet era life relates.
Even with the matter-of-fact acceptance of such financial antics, there are, frankly limits. So if a Russian was to be on the receiving end of a bribery demand, then he or she might respond in typical “assertive” style with the fig.
This semi-offensive hand gesture is made by making a fist and then sliding your thumb between your index and middle finger so that it protrudes towards the offender. It’s a graphic way of stating: “Take your request and shove it”, “certainly not!” or literally “I will not give you a fig/kopeck/whatever”. It’s probably best left to the Russians and certainly not to be considered when one of Russia’s infamous traffic police decide to grant themselves a small financial bonus at your expense! It also has historical uses ranging from warding off evil to decidedly crude attempts at seduction (you work it out). Just don’t go there!
More next time.
[Photo by 797329]