Thumbs Up!

I speak no Portuguese, and English is not a common language here in Natal, Brazil. But after much trial and error, I have found that one nonverbal cue seems to be understood by all. That is the thumbs-up sign.

(In the 50s, Vice President Richard Nixon was not aware of this and insulted the entire nation of Brazil by giving the forefinger to thumb A-OK sign! If he’d only chosen the thumbs-up signal….)

On several occasions I have attempted to explain something to a cab driver, a cashier, or a person I am seeking information from. After much waving of hands and a variety of facial expressions, hoping the other person will understand, he or she will show the thumbs up expression to indicate “I understand,” or “I will do it.”  Of course that is usually complemented by a smile. But I never realized such a simple nonverbal cue could be so rewarding.

Fortunately, our American missionary host, Cris, speaks Portuguese as well as a Brazilian, so for most of the difficult communication times I will wait until she is available. She will call a cab, give me directions, or accompany me on an errand. I usually smile and nod my head as though I know exactly what Cris is saying on my behalf.

I am aware that the thumbs-up sign is not universally accepted. In fact, there are countries where that sign is an insult. I understand that some research is necessary before I travel in other countries. But for now, thumbs-up works for me.

I fear that when I get back to the States I will continue conversing with the thumbs up sign at the ends of conversations. I’ll simply nod my head and smile as my wife seeks information or talks to a cashier. Good thing for me that it’s acceptable in the United States as well as Brazil.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Contact Steve today for priority scheduling! (859) 866-5693 or email

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