Lost in translation

You know that feeling when you feel like you’re doing something totally normal but the person receiving your message looks like you’re coming form outer space? When working in Vietnam this happened a lot to me. I still make use of a lot of signs that are very normal in Holland, but are quite strange in other languages – because they have no meaning or because it means something totally different.

Every morning for example I would walk into the office and great my colleagues by saying ‘Hi’ and pointing one finger up in the air. I did this several weeks, until I started noticing that every time I did this they would look at the ceiling with a questioning face, and then look back at me. One morning I asked the staff what was going on and he said he didn’t understand what I was trying to say – mind you I have been doing this for a couple of weeks at this point and nobody thought to highlight this to me. I explained to him that pointing one finger in the air and saying ‘Hi’ was a normal greeting in Holland, and he started laughing. In his mind I said ‘Hai’ which means two in Vietnamese, and pointed with one finger to the ceiling – so he thought there was something wrong with the ceiling, but he couldn’t really place the number two. Something so normal for me, changed in a weir occurrence. Luckily I did not offend anyone with it!

The other day I had to think of this as I was having lunch with a friend. We were eating something delicious and I said this is YUM – with this I placed my hand next to my cheek and waved at it {this lady shows you exactly how I did this}. This in my mind was a universal way of saying that something was delicious, but she looked at me as if I was totally crazy… She did like the dish, but couldn’t place my gesture, as she thought it meant that you’re crazy. So much for my universal sign language….

Such innocent gestures can all of a sudden get a whole new meaning. And we started discussing some more Dutch gestures that might mean something totally different. A couple of normal Dutch gestures I came up with:


  • Tapping your temple – accompanied with the words ‘koppie koppie’ – means someone is smart
  • Tapping your forehead however means that someone is stupid.
  • A very informal way of saying “what’s up” without using words, is by a sharp nod upward of the head means.

So whenever you meet me and I do any of these gestures, please don’t look strangely at me but nod and carry on what you’re doing! 😉

Which gestures do you make that you think are totally normal, but don’t seem to be so normal when talking with people of other languages.

3 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. I can’t think of any off the top of my head but the sharp nod upwards of the head is quite a common one. I’m missing your posts Frei 🙂

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