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Russian Gestures – Silence is Golden Posted by on May 13, 2011 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners, The Russian Emotion, when in Russia

And now I’m thinking of a Russian 4-letter word that starts with «ж»… Nope, not that one! The word I’m thinking about is «жест». As so many Russian words it has more than one meaning.

«В переносном значении» [Figuratively], it means “an act intended for external effect”:

«Его решение жениться на Марии было лишь благородным жестом» [His decision to marry Maria was just a noble gesture]

«Подарить всю коллекцию картин музею – это широкий жест» [To gift the entire collection of paintings to a museum is an act of generosity]

This post, however, is about «прямое значение» [direct meaning] of the word «жест» – a movement of part of the body, especially head or hand, that so frequently accompanies our speech and helps reinforce our verbal messages. Specifically, it’s about «русские жесты» [Russian gestures]. Even more to the point, it’s about some of the most common gestures that made their way into proverbial expressions.

Let’s start with «махнуть рукой» [lit. to flick a hand]. Bend your right arm so that the fingers are pointing up. Keeping fingers relaxed, bend the right wrist back a bit and quickly flick the hand forward. Congratulations, you’ve just expressed disapproval, rejection or even hopelessness, as in:

«На Колю учителя уже давно махнули рукой» [Teachers gave up on Kolya some time ago]

Don’t get «махнуть рукой» confused with «махать рукой».  The former means resignation. The latter is used simply to wave “hello” or “goodbye”.

Another gesture for expressing dismay and resignation is «развести руками» [lit. spreading your hands]. Don’t worry, you won’t need much space to execute this gesture. Slightly bend your elbows. Turn palms up and relaxed fingers extended. Slowly spread your hands while keeping elbows tucked in.

«Мы обратились к адвокату, но тот лишь руками развёл, мол ничем не могу помочь» [We asked a lawyer, but he just his hands up indicating that he couldn’t help us any].

Next up is «пожать плечами» or «пожимать плечами» [shrug one’s shoulders]. This is a universal gesture of «незнание» [lack of knowledge] or «недоумение» [bewilderment]:

«На вопрос о том, кто его любимый писатель-фантаст, Алексей пожал плечами. Фантастикой он не интересовался» [When asked who was his favorite sci-fi author, Alexei just shrugged his shoulders. He wasn’t into science fiction]

And while we are at it, a gesture that frequently, but not always, accompanies a shoulder shrug is «делать большие глаза» [lit. make big eyes]. This is generally a gesture of surprise, as in

«Не делай большие глаза – ты прекрасно знаешь, о чём идёт речь!» [Don’t you be making big eyes; you know perfectly well what this conversation is about!]

A not so nice way of saying «делать большие глаза» is «вылупить глаза» or «выпучить глаза», both meaning “go bug-eyed”.

How about the good old “crazy” sign? Start by extending the index finger and touching it to somewhere between your temple and the corner of your eye (the exact placement is not important). Now, quickly rotate the hand, alternating between clockwise and counter-clockwise, so that the finger moves slightly. You can accompany the gesture by saying that the person is «того» [it’s pronounced “tovo” and means off one’s rocker] as in

«У нас соседка снизу, совсем того, ходим на цыпочках, а она всё кричит, что как слоны топочем» [Our neighbor below is totally off her rocker; we’re tip-toeing around, yet she screams that we’re stomping like elephants]

Now, on to the really fun one – «фига». Some claim that it’s the Russian equivalent of the American “middle finger” gesture. I disagree. First of all, the real equivalent is a different gesture that will require two hands to execute (hmm, not so convenient «за рулём» [while driving], come to think of it). Besides, «фига» is a much milder gesture that is widely used by children and women.

So, the gesture itself consists of making a fist and then sticking your thumb between your index and middle fingers. The result goes by several names – «фига», «кукиш», «шиш» – all meaning essentially “here’s a big nothing for you”:

«Смотрит в книгу, видит фигу» means “to stare at the book without comprehending anything”.

«Фиг тебе» or «Фиг тебе с маслом» means “Here’s a nothing for you” or “Here’s a buttered nothing for you”.

«Осторожней с Васей. Про него не зря говорят, что он держит фигу в кармане» [Be careful with Vasya. People say for a reason that he’ll flip you a bird behind your back].

Speaking of the middle finger gesture. There’s definitely a cultural disconnect here between Russians and, say, Americans. Russian children are raised with the notion that pointing at something using «указательный палец» [index finger] is very bad. It’s «некультурно» [ill-mannered]. As a result, Russians avoid pointing at objects and people. But when such pointing is unavoidable, they might use the entire hand (like all those statues of Lenin pointing towards «светлое будущее» [Bright Future]) or do what my father does even after years of living in the US – use their middle fingers.

There are, of course, lots more gestures. Which ones would you like to add?

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  1. Richard:

    Ah, the things they don’t teach you in school! LOL

    As far as the “фига” gesture is concerned, in Canada kids and often adults rub their thumb and index finger together after a friend complains about something. The meaning is that “this is the world’s smallest violin playing just for you!”, i.e. don’t feel sorry for yourself. I think the meaning is very similar to the “фига” gesture.

    *Is there a Russian equivalent for “LOL”? Just curious, as always…

  2. Tommi:

    Thank you!
    haha, the explanation about the «фига» sign was interesting! gotta try that.. though it’s not so easy due to the friction between the thumb and the two fingers on the other hand~

    And, @Richard, thank you also for that smallest violin playing gesture! XD
    so funny..

  3. el Omar:

    The “world’s smallest violin” gag was so common during my youth in southern California that it was universally employed when anyone said anything eliciting pity or commiseration. But, my favorite extension of this joke was to purchase a tiny, handmade, toy violin (about 8″ long) in Tijuana that I kept handy. Then, when anyone complained, I would grab it and fiddle a bit. This used to really crack people up, but none more than me. This infuriated my ex-wife so much that she insisted on keeping the violin in the property division. I suspect her motive was to prevent the perpetuation of my exacting the most stinging expression of mockery I’ve ever devised.

  4. Richard:

    @el Omar, I’m glad to hear that our cousins south of the border share our sense of humour.

    Perhaps an entire miniature mariachi band would have pleased your wife even more? 😉

  5. Brad:

    I returned from Russia a few weeks ago. I was at a bar with an American friend and a couple Russians. My American friend told me that if you flick your neck just below your chin, it means that you want a drink or to drink with someone. I was skeptical so I turned to my Russian friend and did it to see his response. He said, “What do you want to drink?”