The British Middle Finger
I recently had to respond to a prompt: describe a cultural mistake you have made, how you fixed the mistake, and what you learned by making that mistake. In doing so, I remembered a funny moment I had with my friends in a pub during first semester last year. So I thought I would share my short response.
It was a gray day in London, with the mist winding its way down the historic Strand area, but inside the pub was sparkling and warm. My friends and I were poking fun at each other, laughing and loving our favorite corner of the city. Every time my best friend fired a joking insult at me, I flashed a peace sign to deflect her words. After a long time of us joking back and forth, my British friend reached across the table and grabbed my hand.
“You know that you’re basically giving her the middle finger, right?”
My face fell blank. “What?”
Apparently I had been doing a peace sign but with my knuckles forward which in Britain is nearly the same as giving the middle finger. Some use it very casually, but it’s still considered a very insulting movement.
My friend explained that it began during the wars between the British and the French when the British would cut off the French’s front two fingers. It became a taunting sign the French would flash the British as an insulting “haha” that they still had all their fingers.
When she saw my face and how quickly I backtracked, she laughed and said that it was completely fine, she just wanted to make sure I knew. For a few minutes, she thought that my best friend and I just had a very casual relationship where that was fine, but she realized it didn’t quite match our personalities. Then it occurred to her that of course we wouldn’t know.
No apologies were necessary, but I still said that I was sorry as my cheeks flushed from embarrassment. It took a conscious effort for a time to change the direction of my peace sign, but it quickly became a habit. Now if I ever ironically flash a peace sign, it has my palm facing forward.
It blew my mind that I hadn’t even considered the tiny things I would have to adjust to being in a new culture. All of these little things make up the British culture, the mindset, the humor and quirks. This mishap reminded me to look out for these small mannerisms when I’m in a new place because it can reveal so much about the people and authentic feel of the culture.
Of course, as friends do, they still tease me about it to this day.