The Russian Tongue: Let me hear your body talk

Gesticulating wildly in stores in a foreign country may get you the products you need, but in many other situations, the movements we make with our hands and body are country-specific.

Gesticulating wildly in stores in a foreign country may get you the products you need, but in many other situations, the movements we make with our hands and body are country-specific.

At least English speakers have many of the basic gestures in common with Russians. For example, nodding (кивать головой) and shaking our heads (качать головой) mean the same thing to most native speakers of both languages - unlike in Bulgaria, say, where a nod means ‘no’ and a shake means ‘yes.’

That’s an instance of gestures having different meanings in different countries; even more common are gestures that are simply absent from another culture. You may have noticed that Russians don’t use the ubiquitous American “air quotes” to express irony; since this gesture doesn’t exist in the Russian-language world, you’d probably just say that a person said something with heavy irony: сказал он с нескрываемой иронией.

Two other gestures absent from the Russian body language repertoire also have to do with the hands: to twiddle one’s thumbs and to give somebody the finger. Now, the former is a gesture that people in English-speaking countries rarely actually perform, but it is recognizable as meaning “to do nothing”; in Russian it could be translated with the verb бездельничать, or, more colloquially, бить баклуши, which has a more negative connotation. As for flipping someone the bird, I mentioned in a previous column that it is often mistranslated as показать фигу/кукиш - those expressions usually indicate a refusal, that someone is not going to get what he wants, and not the general rudeness of the middle finger.

On the Russian hand, there are some great gestures involving the neck. One is drawing the hand across the neck in a cutthroat motion, palm down; in both Russian and English-language contexts this can mean a threat. But in Russia, the gesture has additional meanings. First, it can indicate that you have, or have had, too much of something; if you eat too much at (an informal) dinner, you can make that gesture and say: Не могу больше, сыт по горло. (That’s it for me, I’m totally stuffed.) It also works in other contexts: Извини, не могу тебе помочь. У меня своих дел по горло. (Sorry, I can’t help you. I’ve got more than enough to deal with myself.)

Paradoxically, this gesture can also mean that you don’t have something that you need very badly, and can be accompanied by a variation of the phrase: Позарез нужно. The first word in that expression is a colloquial adverb meaning “very badly,” and is formed from the same root as the verb резать (to cut/kill), so you can see where gesture and language meet here: Мне позарез надо с ней поговорить. (I absolutely have to talk with her.)

Then there’s the famous щелчок по шее, seen only in Russia, when someone flicks his index finger against his neck, indicating that someone was drinking/drinks. As you’ve probably heard, legend has it that Peter the Great rewarded the good work of a carpenter or shipbuilder by granting the man a tattoo on his neck of the royal insignia, ensuring him free drinks for life. So when he went into a bar he could just tap on the tattoo to ask for booze.

Then we’ve got a lot of gestures that fall into the “close but not quite” category. Russians and Americans both count off lists of items on their fingers (считать на пальцах), but they do it in completely opposite ways. We start with a closed fist, and stick the thumb or index finger out first, in an opening-up gesture. Russians start with a flat palm, and then bring each finger in to a fist, often starting with the pinky. Weird, right?

Both languages have similar expressions related to this activity, for when you want to express annoyance over the lack of something: Хорошие современные русские фильмы можно пересчитать по пальцам одной руки. (You can count good modern Russian movies on the fingers of one hand.)

Then there’s the American gesture when we raise our hands, palms up, to about shoulder height and shrug our shoulders, indicating puzzlement or indifference: How should I know? I haven’t a clue. (Откуда мне знать? Понятия не имею.) The similar Russian gesture, разводить руками, involves the hands spreading outward at about hip height, and has more to do with helplessness in a given situation: Что я могу поделать? (What can I do?)

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Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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