There’s a whole range of gestures used in Arab culture which will either be new to you or which carry different meanings from the same gesture in your home country. Rather than nodding, yes is indicated by inclining your head forwards and closing your eyes. No is raising your eyebrows and tilting your head up and back, often accompanied by a little “tsk” noise (which doesn’t indicate impatience or displeasure). Shaking your head from side to side means I don’t understand. A very useful gesture, which can be used a hundred times a day in all kinds of situations, is putting your right hand over your heart: this indicates genuineness or sincerity, and can soften a “no thanks” to a street-seller or a “sorry” to a beggar, or reinforce a “thank you very much” to someone who’s helped you. Many people in the south of Jordan will instinctively touch their right hand to their heart after shaking hands.

One hand held out with the palm upturned and all five fingertips pressed means wait. A side-to-side wrist-pivot of one hand at chest level, palm up with the fingers curled, means what do you want? If someone holds their flat palm out to you and draws a line across it with the index finger of the other hand, they’re asking you for whatever document seems relevant at the time – usually a passport. You can make the same gesture to ask for the bill (check) in a restaurant.

Pointing at someone or something directly with your index finger, as you might do at home, in Jordan casts the evil eye; instead you should gesture imprecisely with two fingers, or just flap your whole hand in the direction you mean. Beckoning with your palm up has cutesy and overtly sexual connotations; instead you should beckon with your palm facing the ground and all four fingers together making broom-sweeping motions towards yourself.

In all Arab cultures, knowingly showing the soles of your feet or shoes to someone is a direct insult. Foreigners have some leeway to err, but you should be aware of it when crossing your legs while sitting: crossing ankle-on-knee means your sole is showing to the person sitting next to you. Copying the Jordanian style of sitting on a chair – always keeping both feet on the floor – is safest. Sitting on the floor requires some foot-tucking to ensure no one is in your line of fire. Putting your feet up on chairs or tables is not done.

Another major no-no is picking your teeth with your fingers; you’d break fewer social taboos if you were to snort, spit into a plastic bag, jiggle a finger in your ear and pick your nose in public. Most diners and restaurants offer toothpicks, which should be used surreptitiously behind your palm.

Essentials

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