In last Friday’s article, I referred to the local use of symbolic gestures or “emblems”, which signify a particular meaning and are usually culture-bound. 

Paying the bill

There are different ways to signify to the waiter that you want to pay the bill at the restaurant.

One way is to point your index finger down and make a circling motion. 

Most restaurants cater to the large Chinese family sitting at a round table often with a large circular turning tray, like a Lazy Susan, so the movement indicates you want to pay for the whole circle. 

Western gestures can also be used: miming a writing motion with the hand as if signing the bill with your credit card, or making the gesture of money (I want to pay) by rubbing your thumb and index finger briskly together.  

As an aside, I have read that if you make the former gesture in Argentina, the waiter is likely to bring you a pen and pad of paper, thinking you must have been asking to write something down.

What’s in a number?

When ordering, you may sometimes indicate how many coffees, how many teas and so on by using counting gestures. Counting is intriguing in its differences. 

The number three in Singapore is shown by raising the middle, ring and little finger and closing in a circle the thumb and forefinger, like the OK sign. 

Three in America is indicated by the index, middle and ring fingers.

In Germany and much of Europe it is the thumb, index and middle finger. 

Seven in Singapore is the same gesture as two in Germany and eight in China (thumb and index finger extended). 

When I ordered food at a hawker stall shortly after I moved to Singapore, the cook made a strange gesture towards me, like a child mimicking a puppet talking, the four fingers and the thumb touching in a quick rhythmical up and down movement.

I only later found out that this gesture was the number five in Singapore and she was indicating that I would need to pay $5! 

Counting and pointing

While people in most countries count with a closed hand as the base and open the fingers, Japanese start with an open hand as a base and fold each digit inwards to count. 

Indians will count using the thumb to move along the folds of their fingers.

But don’t point with the index finger. This is considered rude in Asia.

Use an open hand to show the way, or point with the thumb extending slightly over your closed fist as the Malaysians do.

Getting attention

If you want to call the waiter over to you, the normal beckoning gesture (“come here!”) used in Singapore and throughout Asia is done with the hand reaching out, the palm facing towards the ground and the four fingers in unison rapidly bending at the knuckles downward and towards the body — as if you are grabbing someone and pushing him towards you. 

When I beckon that way to my Western friends they just stand there, or even move backwards as if I am shooing them away. 

Westerners start with the palm facing upwards and move the fingers together in an upward movement towards the body, the mirror image of the Asian gesture. 

And in my work with communication programmes on the Menomonee Indian Reservation in the northern United States, I observed the beckoning gesture being made by puckering the lips!  So come on, let’s get something to eat!