10 Other Ways Trump Can Alienate Allies Through Awkward Hand Gestures

Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 15.

Donald Trump has had a busy few weeks. Since taking office he has jeopardized the status of Taiwan and infuriated Australia (a nation that lives with eight of the 10 most venomous animals on Earth but still found Trump a step too far).

He has, for some reason, threatened to invade Mexico, then laughed it off as a joke. 

Most recently, Trump has even managed to make the handshake a diplomatic sticking point.

From a certain perspective, this is a remarkable achievement. Under ordinary circumstances, the odds of handshake-related catastrophe are pretty low. Humanity has pulled it off with little incident since at least the 9th Century, but, as with so many pieces of this White House, what should be simple has proven anything but.

When shaking hands, Trump has employed an odd combination of aggression, spasmodic jerking and creepy tenderness that has so far put off Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Without tempting fate, it brings to mind one Victorian etiquette suggestion that "a gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense." (Per the History Channel.)

According to Amy Glass, co-author of Leadership Presence and an executive coach with Brody Professional Development, Trump uses his handshake to convey power and strength.

"If you watch his handshakes, you'll notice a pattern," she saidh. "He typically reaches out with his palm down to grasp the other person's hands and then pulls them towards him. He also tends to shake hands for a longer time than is typical in the U.S."

What does his handshake tell us?

"He likes to be in the power role, always initiating and controlling the shake," Glass added. "The cupping of his hand over the Japanese prime minister's hand is an attempt to demonstrate his control. And, he obviously kept the shake going for 19 seconds, despite the prime minister visibly trying to pull his hand away and end it."

Of course, she noted, he may not even understand what he's doing. Trump may be trying to convey warmth and sincerity, "but it looks awkward."

Still, Trump's handshake moment won't last for very long. World leaders will adjust to the new President's style, which is a problem for an administration seemingly on track to nominate Michael Bay for Secretary of State.

So, as a gesture of civic duty, allow us to recommend ten gestures Trump should avoid if he wants to stop annoying, embarrassing and just plain ticking off allies around the world.

10. France: A kiss on the cheek
10. France: A kiss on the cheek

Everyone knows the la bise; it's the quick double-kiss that the French do as a casual greeting. It actually causes some awkwardness for foreigners, as most French are polite enough to know that this isn't common outside the country leading to occasionally confused moments at the door.

Well the good news is that this is a gesture ripe for awkwardness, because the French don't actually kiss the cheek. This is a gesture made in the air or maybe lightly brushing someone's face, if you're particularly close. So for the Trump administration, remember: do not use tongue and do not leave a hickey.

Make the la bise great again!

9. Vietnam: Crossed fingers
9. Vietnam: Crossed fingers

Simple gestures cause of a lot of confusion for travelers and business people around the world. What's common at home can be vulgar abroad and vice versa, for the reason that most gestures are basically arbitrary. Someone somewhere decided that waggling your head meant "yes," and everyone nearby just kinda went with it.

So it is in Vietnam, where the crossed fingers are an insult approximately the equivalent of throwing a middle finger in the U.S., because in Vietnam they think that crossed fingers look like female genitalia.

Given that most of the press corps is still waiting for Trump and Sean Spicer to reveal that their fingers were crossed under the podium all along, this one should be a gimme. Trump has to avoid the cross at all costs.

8. Brazil: The O.K. gesture
8. Brazil: The O.K. gesture

For the countries Trump can't visit in person, perhaps posters will suffice. Flood Sao Paulo with pictures of himself making the finger-thumb O.K. gesture. It may be the only way to go bigger, because, unfortunately for Trump, another president already beat him to the punch here.

In Brazil, the O.K. gesture is, again, roughly the equivalent of flipping someone off, but with somewhat more specific and scatological connotations. As a result, when Vice President Richard Nixon landed here in the 1950s and gave the crowd an A-O.K. with both hands, it went… poorly.

This will probably not be the only page that Donald Trump shares with Richard Nixon in the history books. He has to stop his tendency toward the mudra at all costs. 

7. Greece: The 'stop' sign
7. Greece: The 'stop' sign

Where some cultural bits and pieces have their roots in resemblance, thinking one thing looks like something foul, many others come from history.

Ring fingers are based on an historic belief that the left finger had a vein connected to the heart. We don't fling up our right hands because of that flap back in the 1940s. And in Greece, you don't hold up the palm of your hand at someone, because once upon a time that's what happened to prisoners of the Byzantine Empire.

Called the moutza, this references rubbing ashes or offal in someone's face like you would once have done to a criminal. It's a pretty nasty gesture, and we can most likely expect it from Trump the next time he speaks to a Greek woman. He better watch out for this one.

6. Japan: Taking a business card without gravitas
6. Japan: Taking a business card without gravitas

This one is less serious, but still worth some attention.

Business cards, or meishi, are important in Japan. People pay attention to their own and respect those of others, which shouldn't be a surprise in a culture where professional status plays such an important role.

As a result, it's considered polite to receive someone's business card with appropriate gravity. Take the card with both hands, consider it well, then tuck it away safely. To do otherwise communicates a similar dismissiveness towards the other person's career.

5. Saudi Arabia: Showing your feet
5. Saudi Arabia: Showing your feet

This is actually a very common touchstone. In many cultures, especially across the Middle East and South Asia, showing someone else the soles of your feet is considered highly offensive. Doing so says that you think them no better than stuff you just stepped in.

"Thank you for inviting me into your home, now stare at this bit of undigested gum and the stray hairs from an unidentified animal."

For the same reasons, hitting that person with your shoe is considered a gesture of utter contempt, leading to the 2008 incident in which Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi threw his at President George W. Bush. "Like Dubya" is another reference that Trump should probably get used to.

Ordinarily not a problem, for Westerners this can create a big issue because of one common physical tic: we often cross our legs when sitting.

4. Korea: Shaking with one hand
4. Korea: Shaking with one hand

Actually… Trump might astonishingly do this one well in avoiding offense.

In South Korea, how you shake hands is actually a big deal. A two-handed, serious approach is considered polite. The one-handed, quick handshake that most of us do as a casual greeting is considered dismissive. It's what a superior does, and a rather impolite one at that.

No less than Bill Gates discovered this in 2013 when he greeted South Korean President Park Geun-hye: one hand shaking, one hand in his pocket, one social media firestorm.

3. Australia: The V-for-victory
3. Australia: The V-for-victory

There is a famous picture of Winston Churchill in the wake of World War II flashing the "V for victory" sign with his fingers. Actually there are many, but the astute reader will notice something: he almost always shows his hand palm outward.

This is surprisingly important, because in Australia, Britain and other Anglophone countries, reversing your hand (showing two fingers, palm inward) basically translates to "up yours." This would haunt President George Bush Senior when he visited protestors in 1992 in Canberra and tried, what he thought, was a friendly gesture.

For Trump this is what's known as a twofer: if he blunders, he gets to make a "winning" gesture and double down on driving Australia into China's waiting arms.

2. Thailand: Thumbs up
2. Thailand: Thumbs up

Even in the West, the thumbs up gesture raises questions, albeit mostly historical. It was popularized in America by one of our most beloved cultural, social and religious figures: The Fonz. Before that, the history of this gesture stretches all the way back to the Roman Coliseum, when crowds would use thumbs up/down to vote on whether to kill a gladiator.

Thumbs down was good news. Thumbs up, at least for the man in the ring, meant a really bad day.

Meanwhile in other parts of the world, including regional lynchpin nation Thailand, the thumbs up means something rude and rather proctological. Without getting into detail, suffice to say that Trump could tick Bangkok off his list with nothing more than a drive-by. He could probably kick off his first war by giving a thumbs up to the king. He must avoid at all costs.

1. India: The left hand
1. India: The left hand

It's tough being a leftie in India.

As mentioned above, many gestures take their relevance from history. Old practices became habits, habits became custom and pretty soon something is bad just because it's always been. India's left hand prohibition is going in that direction.

As a rule you don't eat or pass food with your left hand, because historically that's what people used to clean themselves after the toilet. As a concept, this bears no further explanation, save to recommend that readers use their imagination and, failing that, that they view the excellent film Outsourced.

Like many things, some people take this more seriously than others. Increasingly, especially in the cities, it won't really matter. But other, more traditional, Indians will care so much that they'd rather you didn't touch them with that hand at all.

Which brings us all the way back to Donald Trump's lingering handshake, which should put Delhi off its lunch in no time.

We apologize Minister Modi. We out here in America share your pain.

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