Most of you will have heard your mothers tell you: “stop that! it’s rude to point“. Could it be one of those human universals? I have it confirmed from the Netherlands, France, England, United States, Turkey … (please let me know in the comments if it applies in your country)

That doesn’t mean it never happens, of course. But there are many ways in which people, who need to point out a person, will try to avoid being rude. They can:

  1. Use an open hand instead of just the index finger
  2. Supinate (turn upwards) the palm of the hand, though not in extrema
  3. Point beneath a person, not at him. In some games, for example basketball, the referee will point to the feet of the perpetrator of a foul (personal experience)
  4. Keep the hand close to your own body
  5. Point with a nod of your head (and flick your eyebrows)
  6. Point by directing your gaze and then protruding your lips which is in a ‘lower register’ (Laos, Wilkins)
  7. Point with your tongue in your cheek
  8. Shield the pointing finger with your other hand (Bra)
  9. Say ‘the guy at eleven o’clock’ instead
  10. If all else fails, smile and raise your eyebrows and try in every way to appear friendly, not accusing. Perhaps the person being pointed out will be glad of the attention

These two ladies made me suddenly very self-aware. 

Other stuff
Some things to avoid: Pointing with your feet (TUR, FR..) and pointing with objects (TUR..)
Ghana: taboo pointing by the left hand.
Review by D. Leavens of ‘Pointing: Where Language, Culture and Cognition Meet’
S. Kita ed. Blog by Jacob Eisenstein on culture & pointing.