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"A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat!"

Much comedy is based on having characters misunderstand other characters' words or language, but this can only go so far: after all, words have generally accepted meanings, which limits the possibilities for misunderstanding.

With nonverbal communication, the sky's the limit. A wink, a hand gesture, a significant look - could mean anything. It's possible to have characters conduct entire conversations in which each completely misinterprets what the other is saying.

Contrast Talking Through Technique and Hand Signals, where gestures can get a very precise message across.

Examples of Nonverbal Miscommunication include:


Anime & Manga

  • Pretty much the entire premise of Mitsudomoe
  • In one of the One Piece movies, the villain captain and one of his underlings attempt to communicate through eye contact and subtle gestures. It fails.

 Captain: Eye Contact! "Do any of the others have devil fruit powers?"

Underling: (thoughts) he must be asking if I have the situation under control "Leave everything to me!" (thumbs up)

  • A similar incident to the above happens in Elemental Gelade, wherein poor Rowen, across the ship from his Trigger Happy boss Cisqua, tries frantically to signal to her not to intervene in his battle with the opponent of the day (for fear that her bullets will damage the ship). Cisqua cheerfully misinterprets this as a plea for assistance and breaks out the guns. Hilarity Ensues.
  • In Eyeshield 21, Panther finally finds Shin, but then remembers that he can't speak Japanese. So he tries to motion that he wants to test his skills against him. Shin concludes that Panther's hungry.
    • Later, Mamori frantically tries to signal to the Devil Bats that the opposing team is planning something, but most of the team thinks she's trying to cheer them on.
  • In Kemonozume Toshihiko and Yuka are hiding from the enemy. They try to discuss what to do via hand gestures (subtitled on screen). Hilarity Ensues.

Comics

  • A variation is used in an old comic of The Moomins where the Moomins are being held by pirates. A pirate orders them to work "or else", and makes a cutting gesture across his throat. The Moomins are appropriately horrified: "We must do what he says or he'll commit suicide!"

Film

  • Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein features a scene where the monster grabs and chokes Frankenstein. Since he cannot talk, he frantically uses Charades to communicate to his assistants that they should sedate his monster. They take a long time about it before Igor finally guesses "Sedagive!". Frankenstein is not pleased.
  • The scene in the film Men in Black where the attractive female medical examiner attempts to signal to Agent J that there's a hostile alien in the room with them, and he thinks she's flirting with him.
    • This is only partly nonverbal.
  • In Galaxy Quest, Jason Nesmith signals Gwen DeMarco with a throat-slashing gesture while talking to Sarris on a comm channel, then turns to the crew and explains his plan to trick Sarris-- oblivious, despite gestures, to the fact that the channel is still wide open.

 Jason: Okay, Gwen, put me back on with him.

Gwen: That's what I've been trying to tell you, Jason. You are back with him.

Sarris: Perhaps I am not as stupid as I am ugly, commander!

Jason: [to Gwen] I gave you the 'kill' gesture.

Gwen: No, you gave me the 'we're dead' sign. I was agreeing with you. Like I know where the 'hold' button is.

  • The Gods Must Be Crazy. The natives shake their heads to say yes, so when one character asks them to back his story that rhinos stomp out fires they look like they're disagreeing with him.
  • Happens from time to time in The Marx Brothers' movies, when Harpo tries to communicate something to Chico in pantomime. For example, as they try to buy a train ticket in Go West:

 Chico: Where's your seventy dollars?

Harpo: (Shrugs and holds up ten fingers)

Chico: You only got ten? What did you do with the other sixty?

Harpo: (Outlines an hourglass figure in the air and whistles suggestively)

Chico: Ohhhh. You buy a snake, huh?

  • In The Losers, when on top of a tall building, villain nods to his agent, who then throws a businessman down. Villain then "complains" that it wasn't that kind of nod and he just wanted the agent to beat the victim. It's one of the Big Bad's not so funny jokes.
  • Gymnasia's life story in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Hot Amazon, High Class Call Girl, occasionally Cute Mute, known as Gymnasia the Silent. No one even bothered to make sense of what she tried to say... until Pseudolous started acting as her Love Interest and Translator Buddy.
  • In Down Periscope, Kelsey Grammer's character is the captain of an old diesel submarine pitted in a training exercise against the nuclear navy. During one engagement, they hide on the bottom of the ocean, while a nuclear submarine is right above them. Trying to get the other sub to leave, he tries to get Sonar to make whale-like noises, like the ones he recorded on tapes. He tries, unsuccessfully, for about a minute with only gestures, which results in another crewmember making completely different gestures, completely confusing Sonar.
  • In Rush Hour 2, Lee takes Carter to a massage parlor in Hong Kong because Lee wants to have a talk with the Triad boss Ricky Tan (also a friend of his late father's and his murderer). When Carter finds out, he takes his "LA cop" image a little too far and tries to strongarm Tan into going with them to the police station, not realizing that nearly every other client in the partlor is a Triad member. When Lee half-winks and nods to the side, he's trying to get Carter to leave before it's too late. Unfortunately, Carter assumes Lee wants him to grab Tan and drag him out of the parlor. Cue dozens of henchmen getting up to defend Tan.

Literature

  • The novel Good Omens contains a scene in which two conspirators exchange nonverbal signals and each, knowing something the other doesn't, receives a different message from what the other intended to send. A particularly extreme example, since a single wink manages to screw up the End of the World!
  • In the Discworld series, The Librarian, a orangutan who was once a human, routinely fails to convey things to other characters, as all he can say is "Ook."
    • In Guards Guards, he ends up playing Charades several times to communicate sentences to human characters. It takes literal-minded Carrot a very long time to guess 'dragon'.
    • He has begun work on a dictionary to ease this problem. He has got as far as "Ook".
    • Of course, the weird part is really when this trope is averted; those who've known the Librarian for a while understand him perfectly, despite his limited vocabulary.
  • In the X Wing Series this trope is mentioned when it is explained to Dia that charm-signing, a body language/gestures thing, is, like flowers, another way people communicate.

 Dia: "It's a human custom. A new way to miscommunicate so you can find reason to kill each other."

Face: "That's an interesting interpretation..."

  • Dune: At one point in the first book, the Duke makes an offer to a Fremen, one of the wild men of the desert. In response, the Fremen spits on the floor. As most of the men in the room rise to defend the Duke's honor, whereupon the guy who knows the Fremen's ways stops them and thanks the ambassador, then quietly informs the Duke that Fremen value water very highly, and he had basically just given the Duke a compliment.
    • In the David Lynch film, the Duke himself recognizes the gesture, stopping Gurney from stabbing Liet/Kynes. In the miniseries, Paul is the one who steps in (this showing he knows the ways of the desert), although it's Stilgar who's doing the spitting this time.
  • In Specter of the Past, Wedge Antilles, two other Rogues, and Lando Calrissian all meet somewhere in a marketplace, and while the other two Rogues know the local language and customs, at least to some extent, Wedge and Lando do not. Wedge barely makes it past a very pushy melon seller to see Wes.

 Wes: "For a big bad X-wing warrior, you're sure rotten at saying no."

Wedge: "I didn't buy it, did I? Where were you when I needed you?"

Wes: "Oh, I caught most of the show. I especially liked the part where you gave her that palms-outward sign."

Wedge: "That doesn't mean 'no' here?"

Wes: "Not quite. It means you don't want it at that price but that she might want to try a better offer."

    • When Lando meets up with them, he had a melon under one arm.
  • Averted in On Wings of Eagles (set during the Ayatollah revolution in Iran) when an American reminds his companion not to flag a lift with a raised thumb, as it's an obscene gesture in Iran.

Live Action TV

  • "The Unicorn and the Wasp", an episode of Doctor Who, has a similar situation of Charades under pressure. As the Doctor tries to flush cyanide out of his system, he has to silently ask for a list of seemingly random things to help detoxify himself. Donna has a great deal of trouble with this, interpreting "salt" (represented with a shaking fist, ie. sprinkling salt on food) as a cocktail shaker ("What do you want, a Harvey Wallbanger?") and "a shock" as a song (for which she suggests "Camptown Races?")
    • "How is 'Harvey Wallbanger' one word!?"
  • Parodied in a sketch on The State where a choking restaurant customer putting his hands to his neck -- the international signal for "I'm choking" -- sets in motion a train of weird nonverbal gesticulations by his fellow diner, their waiter, the maitre d', and the busboy, while a Narrator explains the various misunderstandings caused by their failure to recognize each other's signals. The sketch ends with the choking victim recovering after having a year's supply of radishes dumped on him, and the audience realizing that the whole mess could have been averted if anyone had thought to speak.
    • Other than the guy who was choking, of course.
  • An entire episode of Seinfeld is built around this trope: George, with a piece of pulp in his eye, gets one of his co-workers fired and accidentally sells George Steinbrenner's birthday card to a sports memorabilia shop by way of some badly-timed winks.
  • On Scrubs Carla tries to use pantomime to remind Turk of a deceased patient's name as he fumbles to recall it in front of the patient's grieving family. Her strange head gestures lead Turk to confess, "We used to call him Ol' Turkey Neck." Bob's family weren't thrilled by this response.
  • A non-comedy example: In Babylon 5, the Earth-Minbari war started when a human commander misunderstood a Minbari gesture of respect as a signal that they were about to attack.
    • Namely, they opened their ship's gunports while approaching, and as a bonus used scanners powerful enough to fry electrical systems from the human ships. In short, a mutual What an Idiot! moment.
    • It didn't help that the humans completely disregarded Londo's advice to send a single ship instead of a fleet. However, since Earth had recently won the Dilgar War, they were overconfident and figured they could handle any threat. Sheridan also mentioned that the captain they sent to make First Contact was notoriously bad in First Contact situations.
  • In Angel, Spike is a ghost, and is mindlessly wandering around Wolfram and Hart in silence. Fred mistakes his movement through a desk and then a wall for a sign, and by luck there really is an important plot item in the desk.
  • An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer involved demons who stole everyone's ability to speak, forcing the heroes to communicate with each other through pantomime. While brainstorming on how they might slay the demons, Buffy shrugs and nonchalantly pumps her hand up and down in the air in front of her, drawing looks of startled disbelief from her friends. Embarrassed at their reactions, she pulls a wooden stake out of her bag and repeats the motion. Everyone gets it.
    • Later, Buffy tries to signal to Riley that he needs to smash the box on a table that's holding all the voices inside it. Riley thinks she means the crystal next to it and hits that, then grins like a dope at her before an exasperated Buffy makes more specific gestures.
  • In an episode of Mad About You, the two main characters are told by a counselor to only communicate non-verbally for a set period of time. Hilarity Ensues.
  • The classic example being the scene in Fawlty Towers where Basil is attempting to tell Polly the name of a racehorse behind Sybil's back, for complicated reasons. Its name was Dragonfly.
  • How I Met Your Mother: Averted with Lily and Marshall, who have perfect "couple telepathy". Played straight with Ted and his fiance Stella, after Stella's sister informs them that her fiance ran off and she can't get a refund. Ted thinks their conversation is about paying for lunch. Stella thinks it's about taking the wedding. It's also Foreshadowing; Ted and Stella later break up.
    • It's also played straight with Ted and Barney during a "conversation" about whether to close the bar they're watching. Ted seems to think they've come to an agreement and will close the bar, but then Barney announces "Good news, everyone! We're keeping the bar open all night!"
    • Another episode included Robin desperately trying to communicate to Lily that she should not open the gift Robin brough to the Bachelerotte party in front of all her family. Lily SEEMS to have completely understood the telepathic message and leans over to whisper something to her mother, who then discretely passes Robin a tampon. Lily then looks over with a very self-pleased "your welcome".
  • Bones is given a signal to try and perk up an unconfident intern who had missed a small but important piece of evidence.

 Director: Anyone could've missed that! I certainly couldn't have seen it! [nods at Bones to say something encouraging]

Bones: Yes, I can't believe you missed it either.

Director: You were supposed to be encouraging!

Bones: You know I can't read body language that well!

  • Used in 30 Rock Liz Lemon tries to hide the fact that Tracy went to a strip club by telling his wife that he took his pet snake to the vet. When Tracy returns and his wife asks where he was (because "I'm back from doing whatever Liz Lemon said!" wasn't sufficient enough), Liz ALMOST saves the day.

 Liz Lemon: *makes snake motion with hand and does that tongue thing*

Tracy: My cobra, Ramsey...

Liz: *mimes getting sick*

Tracy: Yeah, it got sick, so I took it to the vet.

Liz: *gives him a thumbs up and nods*

Tracy: And then my thumb got caught in my butt so I nodded my head until it came out.

  • In Extras, a journalist is interviewing Maggie under the pretense that she is Andy's assistant. Andy sits behind the journalist and tries to mime answers to her that will make him look good. Maggie constantly misunderstands his mimes, giving bizarre and unflattering answers.
  • In Chuck, Devon needs to lie to his wife about where he was when he was doing spy work with Chuck, who is trying in vain to guide the story using hand gestures. Astonishingly, she doesn't buy it.

 Ellie: Oh my God! You were attacked by a bear!

  • Chuck makes the "cut" motion on his neck*

Devon: Yeah, and I j... I... cut off its head!

  • Chuck facepalms*

Devon: Yeah, babe, I... I had to decapitate the bear. In self defense! In order to survive! I'm just glad you weren't there to see it. It was really grisly.

  • The Middle: When Sue is at the meeting listing all the activities she tried (and failed) at in a speech, Frankie gives her a 'hurry up' gesture from the audience. Sue sees this and concludes "Oh, yes, and tumbling."
  • In an episode of Psych, Shawn and Gus see a Bounty Hunter wink at them, and practically grow to Hero Worship him. It isn't until in their adult life, they find out said Bounty Hunter's wink was merely a facial tic.

Oral Tradition

  • The classic old joke in which the Pope and a representative of the Jewish community debate each other in mime. (link)
    • Here is a Buddhist take on the same concept.
    • It always gets this troper that the former is a joke, while the latter is a significant religious parallel, yet containing the same humour value as the former.

Theater

 "You have been ..." (waving) "away ..." (holds up all fingers twice, points to ears) "ten, twenty, ears ... twenty years!" (looking around) "You are ... searching ..." (rocking baby in arms, holding up two fingers) "for a child ... two children!" (flexes muscles) "A fine big boy ..." (bats eyelashes, swivels hips) "...and a strange little boy?"

Video Games

  • Quite prominent in CROSS†CHANNEL. An example would be eye contact communication meaning "Please for the love of God get me out of this situation" (an awkward second meeting with Kiri) being mistaken for "Could you give us some privacy?"
  • Fuuma from Sengoku Basara never speaks and keeps his face hidden, so when he invades the Tokugawa camp in 3 and starts beating everyone to a pulp, it's understandable that Ieyasu thought he was an enemy. As it turns out, he just wanted to deliver a message.
  • Mass Effect 2 has a wonderful example from Mordin Solus. If you pursue a romantic relationship with a crew member he'll offer advice, which is quite helpful in the cross-racial routes. If you don't pursue a relationship, he turns you down. Apparently you blinked at him in a suggestive manner.

Webcomics

 Anakin: You want me to eject you into space?

[SFX]: < boop! > < boop! > < boop! >

Anakin: So that's a yes?


Western Animation

  • Lilo and Stitch has a scene where Nani communicates to Lilo through hand gestures behind Mr. Bubbles' back on what she should say to him. Lilo correctly understands the "brushing teeth" and "looking both ways before crossing the street" gestures, but (possibly intentionally) misinterprets Nani's triumphant gesture of approval grow strong gesture as "getting disciplined," and the following "stop" gesture as "five times a day."
  • Drives the plot of a No Dialogue Episode of Cat Dog that parodied old, black-and-white silent works.
  • On one episode of Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, Eddy is rendered speechless after swallowing a fly, and is given a bell to communicate with. Rolf claims to understand what the bell rings mean, but the things he does for (or rather, to) Eddy are clearly not what Eddy wants.

 Rolf: The Unicycle of Doom is a very brave request for a coward.

  • Happens in an episode of Storm Hawks when Aerrow is attempting to interpret Radarr's mime:

 Aerrow: You were... Boxing? Dancing? Shucking corn?

  • In Family Guy, the news had a Mime Weatherman. When he tried to communicate rain, Tom thought he was stating that "parents would throw fecal matter on their children." Until an angry glare from said mime set Tom straight.

Real Life

  • This can happen pretty often when dealing with those with NLD and/or Asperger's Syndrome.
  • Nonverbal communication in general is something of a craps shoot. That little nod that carried a simple message in your mind could be completely incomprehensible to someone else.
    • Even simple things like Eye Contact and looking away can mean different things to different people and flat out confuse whoever you're contacting. Moral: talk it out!
  • The meaning of gestures also differs from country to country and culture to culture, which can cause some problem, when you travel abroad.
    • Study abroad offices at American colleges warn students that smiling at, and making eye contact with, total strangers, while generally considered polite in the US, can send the wrong sort of message in foreign countries.
    • Don't give someone a "thumbs up" gesture in a Middle Eastern country, as it basically means "up yours!"
    • In Bulgaria, a nod means "no".
    • In Greece, holding out a hand, palm forward, in someone's direction, doesn't mean "stop." It means, roughly, "eat shit."
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