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Non-verbal Gestures: Don't Stick Your Tongue out at Me!

written by: Laurie Patsalides • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 11/21/2012

Like it or not, sticking out your tongue is culturally acceptable at times. We discuss both the acceptable and unacceptable of this ambiguous gesture to Western culture and other cultures in the world.

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    It's a No-No

    Sticking out your tongue isn't always an insult! Heard in classrooms and homes across America, "She's sticking out her tongue at me;" it's considered an insult. It is showing contempt for what one person said or did to another.

    In Western culture we learn from a very young age that this gesture is unacceptable and whatever you do, do not stick your tongue out at your parents.

    Yet, like many American gestures, it has mixed meanings; sometimes it has positive connotations, but most times negative. Depending on the context, it means teasing, flirting, dislike, being silly, angry, rude, or rebellious.

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    Around the World

    In Tibet, sticking out your tongue has an entirely different meaning. There, it is a greeting and a sign of respect. When you first meet someone, you stick out your tongue. It's interesting that a student who was visiting Tibet could not wait to get off of the plane to greet the Tibetan people, yet her mother disapproved.

    • “I thought that was great,” she said. But her mother disagreed, reminding her that she was still from the United States, where
      there was no such tradition (Bushey 2005).

    It really shows the power of learned language and socialization when it comes to this gesture. Her mother, half a world away impressed upon her that it was still inappropriate in her eyes.

    In the culture of the Maori People of New Zealand, sticking the tongue out was a part of the war chant, which preceded battle. The Maori men tattooed their faces (each tattoo in its own pattern), screamed, danced and stuck the tongue out as a sign of intimidation to the enemy. Today, it is still practiced to show visitors their custom and the meaning remains the same-- fierceness and strength. If a Maori woman stuck her tongue out, it was a sign of great defiance.

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    Making Faces :-P or =)~

    Today, people use the emoticon (i.e. smiley's) to stick their tongue out in writing on the computer. Emoticons are not new, however; they have been around since the days of the archaic typewriter. In writing, it is a colon, followed by a dash and ending with a capital P. I have also seen it done this way: =)~

    It means being silly, flirting or teasing in a lighthearted way. On the other hand, it means mocking; it is like saying "pfft"- I don't want to hear what you have to say. Without seeing body language and hearing the tone of voice on the computer, it is easily interpreted wrongly. So, be careful and use the rules of netiquette. Otherwise, you will find yourself in an argument with your best friend or in trouble with your teacher!

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    Rock and Roll Rebellion

    There are a couple of rock and roll groups who made the gesture a teenage icon; the Rolling Stones and later followed by KISS. Even then, adults said the gesture was offensive, because it represented a sign of social rebellion, disobedience and open sexuality; risqué at the time. More than forty years later, show someone either the Rolling Stones logo or photograph of Gene Simmons with his tongue sticking out and they will name the band.

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    But Babies Do It

    For babies, sticking out their tongue is developmentally and socially appropriate. In Western Culture, we think it is cute and even encourage it. Meanwhile, the baby is learning how to imitate and manipulate his or her mouth; thereby learning the beginning of communication. Somewhere around the age of three years old, the child must learn that sticking out his or her tongue or blowing raspberries is no longer acceptable in life. Now it is time to learn the true meaning.

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    And Einstein Did It

    Einstein Sticking His Tongue Out Albert Einstein stuck his tongue out in photographs as his ultimate trademark. In the writings, Einstein: A Biography he is quoted to say, "Sticking out my tongue reflects my political views." An interesting way to express your political views, isn't it? Again, it's all in the interpretation. It could have meant dislike, rebellion or even teasing.

    Image, Einstein Tongue by Arthur Sasse, 1951

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    Is It True?

    Several blogs report that July 19th is National Stick out Your Tongue Day, but I cannot find it officially on a calendar. If anyone has a calendar with it, please share it. Is it word of mouth (no pun intended) or the truth?

    Either way, it's surprising. If you spend the day sticking your tongue out at people, take note of their response. It would make a funny episode of Candid Camera or a great research project on sociology. Instead, grab an ice cream cone or wear your Rolling Stones t-shirt that day and save it for when you really mean it.

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