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Nixon Down Under

One day during his presidency, Richard Nixon landed in Australia for a state visit. As he stepped from the plane, Nixon made a peace sign (as was his custom) to signify solidarity with his Aussie hosts.

Some time later he was delicately informed that, in Australia, the so-called 'peace sign' (unless the palm is facing out) is the equivalent of an American display of the middle finger.

[This tale is also told of George H. W. Bush. According to Roger Axtell, author of Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, Nixon's trip was to Brazil, where his 'okay' sign was interpreted to mean (as it does in Turkey and many other nations) "You're an a--hole."]

[During the second Gulf War, many Iraqis gave passing Americans the "thumbs up" sign, which troops interpreted as a symbol of support. However, in the Middle East (as in parts of West Africa, Russia, Australia, Iran, Greece, and Sardinia), the sign usually means "Up yours, pal!" (The legend that the sign dates back to Roman gladiatorial contests -- with emperors using a "thumbs down" to order a loser's execution -- has been debunked by University of Kansas classics professor Anthony Philip Corbeill, who studied hundreds of ancient artworks and concluded that the thumbs up actually signaled death; a closed fist with a wraparound thumb indicated that a gladiator's life would be spared.) A deaf American who signs "I really want a soda" to a Russian is saying "I really want to have sex" and a Russian who signs "I'm from Moscow" comes closest to "I menstruate" in ASL. And the thumbs up in Iran means "Screw you."]

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