“German gestures? I didn’t know Germans made gestures.” This was the reaction of pretty much all of my non-German colleagues when I asked them if they knew any gestures that only Germans make. It’s true that Germans are not exactly famous for moving much when we speak — especially when compared to Italians or Brazilians. But even we have some culture-specific body language that provokes bewildered head shaking from the uninitiated.
So, let’s explain a handful of very German gestures and what they mean.
Der Schweigefuchs (“the silent fox”)
This gesture is, admittedly, not often seen outside of kindergarten. It was made popular (or might have even been invented) by the German version of the TV show Supernanny (yep, we really do have our own version of that). This gestures indicates to children that they should “prick up” their ears (Ohren spitzen), which means “listen very carefully,” and, more importantly, to close their mouths (Mund zu!).
Ja, ja! (“Yeah, yeah!”)
Whoever thinks that two positives can’t make a negative has never had their statement invalidated by a sarcastic “yeah, yeah!” or a German “Ja, ja!“. To emphasize our disbelief, Germans will make this gesture when saying “Ja, ja!“. We also use it while speaking to make sure you know that we’re obviously being sarcastic. It’s a shame that this message is often lost on non-Germans who don’t get the gesture — perhaps many people think Germans don’t have a sense of humor because they don’t understand when we’re being sarcastic…
Die Daumen drücken (“Pressing the thumbs”)
In Germany, you press your thumbs when you’re wishing someone good luck. It’s the equivalent of crossing your fingers for someone. Someone might say to you “Ich drück’ dir die Daumen!” in the same way one says “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you!” in English.
Rübchen schaben (“Peeling turnips”)
Apparently, the movements of this gesture are supposed to recall the action of peeling turnips with a knife. It’s not entirely clear how we got the name of this gesture, or why we consider the humble turnip to be the vegetable that exhibits the most Schadenfreude. But that doesn’t keep us from spending the first 10 years of our lives making this gesture at everyone and everything. Now that you know this gesture, you’ll also be able to unleash its power on anyone who really deserves to be made fun of. But remember: with great power comes great responsibility.
Der Scheibenwischer (“the windshield wiper”)
You might encounter this gesture a lot when driving — hence the name. It’s typically accompanied by an angry and bewildered facial expression and a hearty “Bist du bescheuert?” (“Are you crazy?”).
So, after this enlightening list, we’ll press our thumbs for your language learning efforts!