Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gasp For Yes

The family together.
I'm a gasper. I don't mean that I express fright or astonishment at every turn. I've simply adjusted to one of the local ways of communicating. The diversity that comes with conveying thoughts is not limited to just differences in pronunciation, but instead covers a wide array of human responses related to the vocal, facial and bodily. Ethiopian culture is a perfect example of how one gesture or sound can greatly deviate from the interpretation to which we are accustomed as certain noises and body language often mean the opposite of what we may think.

Back to gasping, a habit i never imagined myself picking up. Here in the roof of Africa, gasping is used as a sign of affirmation. While those of us in English speaking cultures instinctively just say "yes," "yeah," or "huh-huh," Ethiopians gasp. Even during pre-service training, I heard gasping so often that I involuntarily adopted and I now gasp for yes on a daily basis.

"Are you American?"


"Did you order the tagamino?"


Conveniently enough, I am more easily understood when I gasp as it is the norm. But other forms of verbal and nonverbal communication here had me in a mental knot before I learned the meaning behind them.

  • In Tigray, it is common to click rather than gasp as a way of saying yes. Not the deep, involving your entire tongue clicks that are common in Southern Africa, but a shallow sound that requires only the tip of the tongue and teeth still closed together.  
  • While smacking the lips in English speaking countries conveys shame, in Ethiopia the person making that sound is demonstrating respect for someone. 
  • Children, generally being shyer than adults will not gasp of click, but instead just raise their eyebrows to show they agree or are paying attention. 
  • A palm tickle is a discrete invitation for sex, which to accept you tickle the other person's palm back. 
  • The palm turned down with all fingers moving back and forward is the signal for "come."
  • Wagging the index finger back and forth here does not communicate warning or a "shame on you," but is the simplest way to say "no."
  • Two men or two women holding hands and having their arms around each other indicates friendship, not romance.

Lizzie a.k.a. Mama

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