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Bush in Iraq: Thrown Shoes and Other Hurled Insults
Posted Dec 16,2008

The shoes tossed at President Bush by a journalist in Iraq are the insult that’s been kicked round the world. Many Westerners believe that the thrower acted inappropriately.

He did, however, act in accordance with his cultural traditions. There’s a long history of foot-based disapproval in the Middle East, as well as in other parts of the world. Pop Omnivore spoke with anthropologist David Givens, an expert in nonverbal communications, to learn more about symbolic insults. We’d also like to ask our readers: Have you ever been symbolically insulted? Or have you unknowingly insulted someone in another culture by your actions?

Was the shoe thrower’s action typical human behavior?
It is pretty much a universal trait of humans to have nonverbal gestures that are negative and insulting.

There’s no doubt what it means to throw shoes at someone, is there?
I think most people know. Your feet walk on dirt. If you turn that back toward a human—show the sole of your foot in Middle Eastern countries, in Thailand, and in a few other places—it’s a terrible insult. People get into huge fights when they think someone has purposely shown the bottom of their foot, barefoot or in shoes. If you cross [your] legs and let the sole of your shoe face someone, that can be a terrible, terrible insult. People have been killed for that.

That’s something that travelers should know!
Make sure you keep your feet on the ground in Thailand.

Iraq was involved in another highly publicized shoe condemnation.
Remember when Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled? Folks that really hated Saddam beat on the statue with their sandals to symbolically stomp Saddam.

Is that an ancient custom?
When you look back into ancient Egypt, [people] sometimes drew a pictograph of their enemy on the bottom of their sandals and walked on them symbolically.

Is there any animal behavior that’s similar?
Yes. Chimpanzees, for example, will slap the ground with their hands in a pronated position, like the position for a floor push-up, turned down to the ground. That gets into that kind of stomping mode.

Lots of people do a variation of a stomp.
Yes, like when [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev pounded on a table with his shoe. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, is what I’d call a “table-pounder.” When he gets excited, he pounds on a table with the flat of his palm held down. It’s a symbolic stomp.

Any parent knows that kids like to stomp off to their room when they’re mad.
The kid is stomping on you symbolically.

Are there other gestures of anger that people might not be aware of?
Quite a few. There’s one called the “hand ring.” In the U.S., it’s the A-OK gesture, where you oppose the tactile pad of the thumb and forefinger and make a little circle and extend other fingers, a little bit like making [an] A-OK sign. But in other parts of the world—like Germany and Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, parts of South America—that same gesture, if turned so the palm is facing upward and parallel to the ceiling and moved up and down a bit, it’s a sexual insult much like giving the finger.

Where did that come from?
It goes back to ancient Greece. It appears in certain vase paintings. It symbolizes a body orifice, male or female. And then it spread. Who knows why? And once [these gestures] get going, they kind of persist.

Any other anger sign people might not recognize?
My favorite is called the “double moutza.” It’s a Greek word for a palm thrust. Again, it’s the position of your hands when you do a push-up. But [in this case you] extend your forearm and upper arm straight ahead toward the person you’re giving an insult to. Palms are open, and arms are fully extended, like you’re going to push the person back. You and I might use it if we want to symbolically push something back. It’s an insult only in Greece.

What does it mean?
The meaning of even one moutza is “Go to hell.” The double moutza, with both hands out, means “Go to hell twice.”

George Bush is lucky he didn’t get a double moutza.
He probably got a lot of them. We just didn’t see them.

- Marc Silver

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (4)
Filed Under: Current Affairs


Rebecca Reeder
Dec 16, 2008 5PM #

Kudos for this article. :-)

Dec 16, 2008 5PM #

The man who threw the shoe is such an insult to the whole of America. I bet the people watching the news must be infurated.

Dec 16, 2008 5PM #

Before I went to Thailand, a wise friend informed me that I should never touch a Thai on the head because it's an enormous insult. He also told me to keep my feet on the ground when sitting--seeing the soles is incredibly offensive.

Great post!

Dec 16, 2008 5PM #

Great post, Marc! I've gotta give that double moutza a try... :)

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