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Author Finds That Every Little Meaning Has Gesture of Its Own

December 09, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Roger Axtell learned about local customs the hard, blushing, clammy way.

"I was in Djedaa (Chad) in 1967, leaving a building with a local businessman," he explained. "He reached out and started holding my hand. Oh, boy. My palms sweated. Then I realized that in his country it was a sign of respect and a tribute to my wisdom.

"But there's still a problem when he comes to Janesville, our little town in Wisconsin. We haven't held hands going down the main street."

Then there's Johnny Carson, another scoff lore.

Hand on Fist

"You know when Johnny stands there, slapping one hand on top of his fist?" said Axtell, a self-schooled expert on one man's panegyric being another country's faux pas . "In Chile, it means the same as our impudent finger. I don't imagine Johnny's audience is very big in Chile."

President Reagan, Axtell continued, is another prominent American who apparently isn't up on the manners and manual messages of elsewhere.

In Geneva last month, en route to a summit session, Reagan gave a two-part reply to a newsman's question. Verbally, he said: "Hell, no." Visually, and with cameras memorializing the miscue, he displayed two fingers. With the back of the hand toward cameramen and questioner. A Churchillian salute, in sens reverse , as it were.

And in the sign language of most British streets and motor ways, knows Axtell, that duplicates exactly what Johnny Carson's flourish has been saying to Santiago.

Regular Habit

"I didn't know that," a White House spokesman said. "That's interesting."

He explained that President Reagan does indeed have a regular habit of illustrating answers with a two-digit wave, a descending salute that starts with the fingertips touching his forehead. Then Reagan doesn't know the Anglo-Saxon roots of the final gesture and he wasn't offering advice to the media?

"I'm sure that's not what the President intended," the spokesman said.

All of which, Axtell continued, amply proves the point that when in Rome do precisely what Romans do. But should you gaffe, don't apologize with a bunch of chrysanthemums. In Italy, they're used only at funerals.

Axtell is vice president of marketing for the Parker Pen Co., a button-down Willie Lowman whose selling career goes back to fountain pens and blue-black ink. He supervises sales offices in 154 countries where, since 1902, people have been buying Parkers (that generic reference and international honor standing alongside Hoovers and Thermos flasks) because the late George S. Parker once said: "Our pens write in any language."

True. But salesman don't. Nor did Axtell when he first began selling overseas and started bleeping himself for world-class blunders and bloopers.

Toast in Middle

In Hong Kong . . . he blew his official toast and a 10-course dinner. How was he to know that toasts begin in the middle of the meal and right after the shark fin soup?

In China . . . he pored through a dictionary and a limited vocabulary for an after-dinner thank-you. He wanted to flatter his hosts, to tell them their meal was so ample he must loosen his belt. It came out as: "The girth of this donkey's saddle is loose."

In the South of France . . . after examining a delightful hotel room, Axtell showed his satisfaction by flashing that good ol' Yankee high sign, forefinger and thumb in a circle. "Terribly sorry," the manager said, "we'll show you another room."

And in Cairo, in the mid-'60s, Axtell sat with seven Egyptians on overstuffed cushions on marble floors. They were in robes. He was in a suit. The wooden mouthpiece of the hookah passed around the group. No women trespassed this citadel of all-male business. No alcohol. The emotional Arabic of Gamal Abdel Nasser roiled from a radio.

Axtell had two thoughts. This was no time for social boo-boos. This was a perfect time to start taking notes for the next time.

"For how you behave in other people's countries reflects on more than you alone," he said. "It also brightens, or dims, the image of where you come from and whom you work for. The Ugly American about whom we used to read so much may be dead. But here and there, the ghost still wobbles out of the closet."

Now Axtell has compiled a ghost buster. It's "Do's and Taboos Around the World," a vehicle for the tips, anecdotes and advice of more than 500 veteran travelers who have mastered the science of saying ohb-ri-gah-doe (Portuguese for thank you) with feet in their mouths.

Parker Pen has underwritten (pun intended) the publishing costs, also Axtell's expenses as he travels the lecture and talk-show circuit as an Emily Post for those who might leave home without it. Decorum, that is.

To the casual traveler, of course, a series of flubs risks nothing more than personal embarrassment and a mild heehaw against America. But to a diplomat, it could blow the talks. To a businessman, it's all the difference between no commission and the sale of 50,000 shower goggles. So, too often, he'll range no farther than Bakersfield.

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