Justice Scalia's Under-the-Chin Gesture

Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia flicked his hand under his chin in response to a question by a reporter for the Boston Herald last weekend — a gesture the reporter felt was obscene. Scalia insists it wasn't, and says those who think otherwise have watched too many episodes of The Sopranos. Madeleine Brand talks with Roger Axtell, author of Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, about Scalia's hand-under-the-chin gesture.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And finally, today, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his colorful remarks, made a colorful hand gesture that some say was the equivalent of a very strong buzz-off, something we can't say on the radio.

When leaving church last Sunday, a reporter asked Scalia if he had received a lot of flack for his conservative Roman Catholic beliefs. Scalia responded, you know what I say to those people? And then he cupped his hand under his chin and flicked his fingers out. The Boston Herald reported that Scalia had made an obscene gesture.

Scalia responded with a scathing letter to the editor, accusing the newspaper staff of watching too many episodes of The Sopranos. He said the gesture wasn't obscene, but dismissive. And here to shed some light on the gesture in question is Roger Axtell. He's author of the book, Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. And Mr. Axtell, welcome to the program.

Mr. ROGER AXTELL (Author): Thank you.

BRAND: So, dismissive or obscene?

Mr. AXTELL: Well, I would come down on the side of dismissive. It's a somewhat curt gesture that just says enough. There are plenty of other obscene gestures in Italy.

BRAND: Well, what would be the obscene gesture? Is it the obvious?

Mr. AXTELL: The obvious ones are the forearm jerk and the digitus impudicus(ph). That's the impudent digit of…

BRAND: You mean the finger?

Mr. AXTELL: The finger--expressly a digit, they call it. And there are many others that could have been used.

BRAND: Well, tell us about this particular one. What does it mean, exactly?

Mr. AXTELL: It could be just I've had enough, go away. It's a fairly strong gesture, but I've said that Italy is the Garden of Eden of gestures. They are very demonstrative in that country, and they have many variations. And, indeed, this gesture may have slightly different meanings in the north or the south. This business of gestures is a rather elusive and fickle thing, and it's hard to codify it, but it's important to know these things, because we Americans travel around the world, and we use many common gestures that are actually quite rude outside the United States.

BRAND: Like what?

Mr. AXTELL: Well, the okay sign. That's where you put your thumb and forefinger and form a circle, a 98 percent recognition in the United States, but in Japan, that's the sign for money. It's the sign of a coin, so you could be doing business with a Japanese businessman, and say let's sign the contract and make the okay sign, and he could interpret that as he's making the sign for money. Does he want some money from me to sign the contract, a bribe?

In the south of France, it means zero, if you stop and think about it. It is. It's a zero, worthless. I took a hotel room one time in the south of France, and the concierge said how is the room? And I made the signal, and he said, well, if you don't like it, just say so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AXTELL: But I was saying it was fine, and the worst offense is in Brazil, where that gesture is very, very rude. You can almost figure out why. It's a part of the anatomy. But Richard Nixon, in the ‘50s, went to Brazil not knowing that, and he got off the airplane, and he not only flashed one okay sign, he flashed two okay signs. His picture was in all the newspapers of Brazil, saying, American Vice President insulting Brazil.

BRAND: Roger Axtell is the author of the book, Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. Thank you very much.

Mr. AXTELL: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.

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