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Non-Verbal Miscommunication

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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.

A common hazard of Miming the Cues. Contrast Talking through Technique and Hand Signals, where gestures can get a very precise message across.


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  • The "Game Night" Dairy Queen commercial has the Dairy Queen Lips mascot utterly failing to get the other participants to guess that his Charades performance is acting out the word "blizzard", even when he resorts to opening the door to let in a frigid wind and in spite of everyone present eating one of Dairy Queen's Blizzards.
    Woman 1: Starry night!
    Man 1: Freezing!
    Man 2: Time's up!
    Woman 2: Hey, guys! Who wants the last two Blizzards?
    DQ Lips: [repeatedly bangs self against the side of the opened door in exasperation]

    Anime & Manga 
  • In an early episode of Code Geass, Lelouch pulls the collar of his shirt to signal Suzaku to meet on the roof later. The audio dramas expand this quite a bit: Lelouch, a Crazy-Prepared super-nerd even at that age, had created an entire language of over a hundred hand signals for them to communicate with. Of course, Suzaku couldn't remember them all, leading to quite a bit of confusion until Lelouch simplified it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In one of the One Piece specials, the villain captain and one of his underlings attempt to communicate through eye contact and subtle gestures. It fails.
    Captain: [signalling through eye contact] Do any of the others have devil fruit powers?
    Underling: [thinking] He must be asking if I have the situation under control... [aloud] Leave everything to me!

    Comic Books 
  • 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!"

    Comic Strips 
  • Garfield has a subversion: Garfield successfully mimes a message to Jon ("You're standing in my food"), but Jon doesn't get that he is, in fact, ankle-deep in Garfield's food bowl. He thinks it's just a game of Charades, where he was supposed to guess a message (like a movie title) that has nothing to do with the situation at hand.

    Fan Works 
  • Examples in the Calvinverse:
  • This comes up in chapter eighteen of Cellar Secrets. Because the she tends to communicate nonverbally, Ryuuko gestures to Uzu, however, unlike her sisters, he can't understand her gestures, in which case, she gets frustrated and hits him.
  • At one point in Crack'd Mirror, Hermione tries to communicate with her eyes that she thinks Luna is an impostor. Unfortunately, the sex-crazed alternate Harry thinks she's talking about having more sex and signals back he's always up for a threesome, which Hermione mistakes for him saying he's got a plan and to follow along.
  • Supergirl fanfic my youth is yours: Averted; Kara and Lena's nonverbal communication skills were so good in college they were banned from charades. This continues in the main story, where Lena nearly always interprets Kara's expressions perfectly (and vice versa) even when others have trouble.
  • In the Pokémon: The Series fanfic Symbiosis, Ash misinterprets Pikachu's hand signals for leash as a noose.
  • In This Bites!, this applies given that the city of octopi the Straw Hats run into communicate mainly by eight-tentacled sign language... and Vivi and Robin end up insulting the shogun, his lineage and his surfing skills when Vivi accidentally uses the eight-tentacled dialect instead of the eight-jointed-limbed dialect.
  • One Thor/Avengers fanfiction features hostile aliens gatecrashing a party on Asgard which Jane Foster and the Avengers are attending; Black Widow and Hogun the Grim begin communicating by Meaningful Looks, which Jane thinks is impressively badass. This silent conversation seems to be leading somewhere... until Hogun picks up a platter of chicken and points at it. Natasha blinks, then goes over to talk to Hogun with actual words, which Jane reflects might be less secret agent but also less likely to have significant portions of the conversation turn out to be "and then chicken."

    Films — Animation 
  • In the Animated Adaptation of Asterix in Britain, the Roman invasion fleet is being coordinated by a centurion using hand flags. Just then a seagull lands on his helmet. His frantic efforts to brush it off inadvertently signal the catapults to open fire on their own ships.
    Caesar: Centurion, make a note: I came, I saw, I can't believe my eyes!
  • In The Emperor's New Groove, Yzma's plan to poison Kuzco has failed, instead turning him into a llama. Kuzco hasn't noticed, and continues their dinner conversation. Yzma starts beating two pieces of broccoli together, trying to tell Kronk to knock him out. He thinks she's just asking for more broccoli. Yzma finally gets the message across by pounding her palm with her fist.
  • In Ice Age, Scrat attempts to warn Manny and Sid of the ambush by Diego's pack. They understand "pack of..." but can't find out the last part, even when Scrat points directly at Diego.
  • In Lilo & Stitch, Lilo's sister tries to prompt Lilo from behind the social worker's back. It all goes well until Lilo misinterprets an enthusiastic gesture, a five-finger "stop" reaction, and a face palm as "I get... disciplined? Five times a day, with bricks!"

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Beetlejuice. The title character is trying to get Lydia to say his name three times so he can be released from his imprisonment. He's not allowed to say his own name, so he uses a sort of visual image Charades to teach her his name. Trouble starts when he tries to get to say the "juice" part.
    [Beetlejuice shows an image of a box of orange juice pouring out the juice]
    Lydia: Breakfast? Orange? Orange beetle? Beetle fruit? Beetle breakfast? Beetle drink? [she finally gets it] Beetle juice?
  • Doctor Dolittle: While the doctor learns to speak to animals, he tries to tell a pig "Good morning" by grunting and shaking his right leg. However, he shakes his left leg, which translates to "Good night."
  • CODA is about a deaf family with one daughter who can hear. Ruby assists her parents and brother in communication with other hearing people, but misinterpretations do happen.
    • Gertie asks Ruby how to sign the expression "You’re really smoking hot," to Ruby’s brother Leo. After she signs to Leo on her way out of the house, Leo signs to Ruby, "What's up with Gertie? She just told me she has herpes."
    • Mr. Villalobos meets Ruby’s family after the choir’s recital. Mr. V signs what he thinks is a pleasantry to Ruby’s family, which leaves them uncomfortable. Mr. V had inadvertently given them the wrong hand sign, meaning “Nice to fuck you”.
  • In Down Periscope, Kelsey Grammer's character LCDR Dodge is in command 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 play taped recordings of whale song against the hull. He tries, unsuccessfully, for about a minute with only gestures, which results in another crew member making completely different gestures, completely confusing Sonar. After Dodge starts over and seemingly gets his point across, Sonar misinterprets the order and starts making the whale noises himself. And it works.
  • In David Lynch's Dune (1984) the Fremen leader Liet-Kynes spits on the table in front of Duke Lete Atreides. Duke Leto recognizes the gesture as being friendly (due to how precious any moisture is on a desert planet) and stops Gurney Halleck from stabbing Liet-Kynes.
  • Gymnasia's life story in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. 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 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.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Peter Quill convinces Drax the Destroyer not to kill Gamora as Revenge by Proxy for the murders of his family at the hands of Ronan the Accuser, suggesting that they work together, as that will lead them to Ronan, and then Drax can kill him in person, which Quill emphasizes by doing the slit-throat gesture.
    Drax: Why would I put my finger on his throat?
    Quill: What? Oh, no, it's a symbol. This is a symbol - for you slicing his throat.
    Drax: I would not slice his throat. I would cut his head clean off.
    Quill: It's a general expression for killing someone. [turns to the other inmate who'd just been talked by Drax into stepping down from his own attempt on Gamora] You've heard of this, you've seen this, you know what this is, right?
    Prisoner: Yeah, yeah—
    Quill: Everyone knows.
  • At the start of Holmes & Watson, Watson misinterprets Holmes' attempts to suggest other means of killing himself as Holmes talking him down off the roof and telling him that he loves him.
  • Played for drama in Inglorious Basterds, where this gets a lot of people killed. A British officer is inside Germany in World War II, impersonating a German officer. A real German officer gets suspicious and starts to quiz him. The Brit seems to have fended off the German's suspicions—until he orders drinks, signaling the waitress for three drinks by raising the index, middle, and ring fingers of his right hand...when a real German would use their index finger, middle finger, and thumb. Cue a bloody shootout.
  • In Lone Survivor, the injured soldier Luttrel is given shelter by a village in Afghanistan. He needs to remove shrapnel from his leg, and since he cannot speak their language, he mimes for a knife. A boy hands him a duck instead. The boy's father understands and produces a knife, but thinks he wants him to slaughter the duck until Luttrel finally manages to get him to hand him the knife.
  • 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.
  • In Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Robin, thinking that his girl Wednesday doesn't speak English, gets her to explain her situation through charades, leading to this. It then turns out she speaks fluent English, but was enjoying their little game.
  • Happens from time to time in 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?
  • Partial example in 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, and while she is talking most of her indications of the alien are nonverbal.
  • In Quick, Chun-shim attempts to signal the police that her helmet has a bomb in it by pointing at her head with both hands. The confused cop mouths back "I heart you, too?".
  • 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 parlor 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.
  • One scene in Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed has Shaggy and Scooby infiltrate a Bad Guy Bar where past foes of Mystery Inc. hang out called the Faux Ghost by pretending to be Shizzy McCreepy and S.D. McCrawly. Scooby dances at one point and Shaggy tries to gesture to Scooby that his wig is slipping off. Scooby misinterprets this as a dance move and starts jumping around pointing at his head.
  • 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.

  • A medieval European folktale has a man everyone believes to be a scholar through bizarre circumstances. He tries to keep up the pretense, but on learning that other scholars are coming to interrogate him, he fakes a bad cough and receives them in his bed. One scholar starts his dissertation by lifting one finger, the man shows him three. The scholar is amazed that the man pointed out that while yes, there is one God, he is the Holy Trinity as well. Whereas the man thought the scholar was going to poke his eye out, so he countered by threatening to remove both his eyes and his nose.

  • The classic old joke in which the Pope and a representative of the Jewish community debate each other in mime. (link)
  • There's an old linguist joke about a linguist who is trying to learn a culture's language. Everything they point at has the same word in that language. At first the linguist thinks they have discovered a language consisting of a single word... Until they learn that the word they've been hearing is the culture's word for "finger".

  • Bored of the Rings. When the "tall, dark Ranger" tries to use Hand Signals to tell Frito to meet him in the men's room in five minutes, several onlookers think he's trying to play a game of Charades and start calling out "Famous saying?" and "Sounds like!"
  • This is how a mountain on Discworld ended up being called Your Finger You Fool (much like in Jokes above). An explorer pointed to the geographical feature he wanted the name of, got this response, and didn't realize what it actually meant. The footnotes reveal other geographical locations known as 'I Don't Know, What?', 'Just a Mountain,' and 'Who Is This Fool Who Doesn't Know What a Mountain Is?'
  • In Dr. Franklin's Island, being turned into weird animals makes it hard for Semi and Miranda to communicate. They're too paranoid of being overheard to use their Electronic Telepathy much, especially regarding escape plans. Because of their Pseudo-Romantic Friendship they're able to convey some things, mainly feelings-based, through body language, but this is limited. Once when Miranda makes a point of showing Semi a pattern of items she's arranged, Semi splashes her tail to convey "it looks nice!" and Miranda, frustrated, sweeps it away with her wings - she'd been trying to tell Semi what the code to the keypad locking a cage was.
  • 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 meeting table in front of the Duke. As most of the men in the room rise to defend the Duke's honor, Duncan Idaho, a ducal advisor who has been living among the Fremen to learn the Fremen's ways—stops them and thanks the ambassador for the gift of his body's moisture, then quietly informs the Duke that Fremen value water very highly, and he had basically just given the Duke a compliment. Also counts as a Cross Cultural Kerfuffle.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • 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...
    • 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.
    Lando meets up with them after a while, with a melon under his arm.
    • Galaxy of Fear has a scene where Zak is floating in a bacta tank and can't hear a thing. His sister has discovered something terrible and suspicious about the facility he's in and tries mouthing it, but he can't read lips and her miming doesn't make much sense, though he can at least tell something's up. Finally she hits on something, but it takes a bit.
  • In the Myth Adventures novel Hit and Myth, Skeeve gave the weak and underhanded King Roderick and the ambitious and ruthless Queen Hemlock wedding rings that can't be removed, and tells them that the rings link their lives, so neither of them can murder the other. At the end of M.Y.T.H. Inc Link, Skeeve receives a finger with a ring on it in the post, and the message seems clear; Hemlock has cut off her finger so she can kill Roderick, and is now taunting them about it. In the next book, it turns out that this was Roderick's finger, which she cut off after he died of natural causes and she didn't, and the intended message was more like "I'm kind of in over my head, but you're good at sorting things out, so I'd like you to be my new consort."
  • In The Zone novels by James Rouch, Major Revell is with a prostitute who doesn't speak English. He points at his watch and raises his fingers to show he'll be back in five minutes, but she thinks he wants to watch her masturbate and starts playing with herself.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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), Liz ALMOST saves the day.
    [Liz Lemon makes snake motion with hand and wiggles tongue]
    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 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.
  • 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 on the human ships. The gesture of respect was the space equivalent of an open hand: gunports would be open but weapons would remain unpowered. Unfortunately, with their sensors overwhelmed by the Minbari scans, the humans couldn't tell that the weapons weren't powered, only seeing open gunports. Minbari leader Dukhat realized the potential misunderstanding but too late. He was killed in the opening volley, and the simple majority (i.e. by one vote) of the Grey Council voted to destroy humanity.
  • Bones: Brennan 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!
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush" 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.
  • Cheers:
    • In the very first episode, Diane picks up the phone when the caller is trying to reach Sam, who doesn't want the call, so first he makes his fingers walk to indicate "Tell her I left" which Diane understands, but when looking for an excuse, he makes scissors with his fingers and makes hair-cutting motions. Diane's interpretation: "He had to go to mime class!"
    • In another episode, Coach is supposed to signal a corrupt card player that his opponent has a poor hand by scratching his cheek. Unfortunately, his cheek starts to itch...
    • In yet another episode, Diane shows off her mime skills, while Cliff gives a running commentary of what he thinks she's doing.
  • 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: [sarcastically] 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.
  • Neatly subverted in this Daily Show skit. Stephen Colbert proposes a reverse psychology advert campaign: Drugs are cool, kids! Jon Stewart asks if these ads will work better than the traditional ones.
    Colbert: Oh no, Jon. They won't be effective at all. [wink]
    Stewart: All right. So they won't be... they won't be effective at all?
    Colbert: Not at all, Jon! [wink]
    Stewart: ...Are you coming on to me in a sexual way?
    Colbert: Not at all, Jon! [wink]
  • Danger 5, a spoof of 1960s TV spy series. Claire is being led away by enemy soldiers.
    Claire: [winking] [subtitle: Stay on mission. We can handle ourselves.]
    Tucker: [winking back] [subtitle: What?]
  • Doctor Who: In "The Unicorn and the Wasp" 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, i.e. 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?").
  • Dog with a Blog: Tyler has to pretend to be a dog whisperer so that Nikki doesn't find out Stan's secret. He can't figure out what's wrong with Nikki's dog, Evita, but Stan sees that she has a bur in her paw and must tell Tyler without alerting Nikki. He gesticulates his paw but Tyler gets it wrong. Stan then writes it on the wall, but since he's a dog he doesn't know how to write. Finally, Stan calls Tyler.
  • In the miniseries Dune, the Fremen leader Stilgar spits on the table in front of Duke Lete Atreides (which in the Fremen culture is a gesture of respect). Paul is the one who steps in (this showing he knows the ways of the desert) to prevent Stilgar from being attacked.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Friends:
    • When Rachel goes to her second job interview at Ralph Lauren, she doesn't notice she has ink on her lip from biting down on a pen. The interviewer gestures at his lip to try to alert her, but she mistakes it for a sexual proposition and furiously storms out before he has the chance to correct her. Then when her friends repeat the same gesture to her, she just thinks they guessed how her interview went.
    • Chandler is on the phone with a girl and Joey starts a really strange pantomime that he assumes is related to something Joey wants him to say to the girl. After he hangs up, he asks Joey what the hell he was signaling and Joey just explains he wanted to know if Chandler wanted to order a pizza.
  • On Good Omens, the nuns of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl are tasked with replacing the baby of the Dowlings family with the infant Antichrist. Problem is, the Young family arrives before they can begin the procedure, throwing the nuns doing the switch into confusion. Eventually, it all falls to the ditzy Sister Mary, who switches the Antichrist with the baby of the Youngs. She and Sister Theresa give an exchange of winks, Theresa believing that Mary has kept perfect track of the babies, and Mary believing that Theresa was instead giving her praise for switching the babies. As such, nobody bothers to verify which baby is which, meaning that Aziraphale and Crowley spend the next twelve years monitoring over a perfectly human child and not the Antichrist, and don't realize the mistake until just a few days before Armageddon is scheduled to take place.
  • Horrible Histories: In a segment on the sign language of Saxon monks, a monk's attempt to tell his brothers that the Vikings are attacking is first interpreted as "the gorillas are making clay pots" and then "the gorillas are ringing the bells".
  • How I Met Your Mother: Averted with Lily and Marshall, who have perfect "couple telepathy". Played straight with Ted and his fiancée Stella, after Stella's sister informs them that her fiancé 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 brought to the Bachelorette 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 discreetly passes Robin a tampon. Lily then looks over with a very self-pleased "you're welcome".
  • Janda Kembang: Episode 19 has Slamet mistaking Rais' "Pay Me" hand gesture for a dhikr gesture, so he gives Rais a dhikr counter instead of money.
  • Jessie: In "101 Lizards", Ravi finds that he cannot handle raising all of Mrs Kibling's 12 babies and eventually gives them away to a nice woman named Cassandra, who claims that the lizards will be be living a farm upstate. Bertram starts talking about a time his goldfish died and his parents flushed it under the pretense of it going to live in a "farm upstate". Jessie waves her hands repeatedly to get him to stop talking, but he continues anyway and Ravi faints in horror. He then wakes up thinking it was All Just a Dream and Jessie repeatedly waves her hands again before Luke can correct him that it wasn't a dream, but Luke does so anyway worrying Ravi even more. Jessie eventually gives up and says "Apparently, I need a new signal!"
  • Lucifer: Charlotte tries to get Detective Chloe Decker to investigate a case without revealing Charlotte and Lucifer's prior involvement. Lucifer tries to mime signals from behind Chloe.
    Charlotte: I heard things on the phone call.
    Chloe: Like?
    [Lucifer makes a finger gun]
    Charlotte: Fingers, pointing.
    Chloe: You heard fingers pointing?
    Charlotte: [Lucifer glares at her] Very angrily, yes. [Lucifer mimes shooting] Also a gunshot. [Lucifer clutches his chest, slumping on the desk] Sounded like he was dying, or... melting? It's hard to tell.
  • 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 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."
  • Mimpi Metropolitan:
    • In episode 17, people who helped push Bambang's car extend their hands to ask for payment, but Bambang mistakes it for wanting a low-five. They quickly explain their intention verbally afterwards.
    • In episode 19, Alan tries to get Pipin to keep her mouth shut about Prima in front of Yola by winking. Pipin doesn't shut up since she mistakes it for Alan getting something in his eye.
  • In the Modern Family episode "Snip", Mitch has conspired with his and Cam's friend Longinus to have a conversation while at the latter's clothing boutique that will lead to Cam taking a job there, since Mitch wants him to but knows better than to suggest directly. It almost works, but as Cam is within earshot in the changing room trying on a shirt, another employee blabs about the whole scheme, completely oblivious to Longinus and Mitch's hand signals to shut up, and Cam storms out in a huff.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus. One sketch had a courtroom where the participants communicated using Charades, resulting in a judge misinterpreting a jury's decision as "Not guilcup".
  • Night Court. A friend of Mac's cannot communicate that he is choking on a hot dog and is forced to write a plea for help on the table in ketchup. "'Mac, I'm cooking'?"
  • In an episode of Phil of the Future, Keely is enrolled into an advanced maths class after accidentally saying the correct answer to an equation that Phil figured out since it's the maths from his timeline. To keep up the charade, Phil works as being in charge of the projector in the advanced and gives the answers to Keely; although he trouble giving the answer x2.
    [Phil holds a card in front of the board]
    Keely: X-clip.
    [Phil holds up a paper]
    Keely: X-paper.
    [Phil shows up dressed as a cowboy and does the square dancing]
    Keely: X-cowboy....Dosedo...Square dancing (finally gets it right) x2.
  • Played for laughs, of course, on Police Squad!. In one episode, criminals leave a message for the police. But instead of tying a note to a brick and hurling it through the window, they tie a mime to a brick and hurl him through the window. The mime then proceeds to act out the criminals' demands, which the detectives must interpret. Frank Drebin, as you'd guess, is terrible at charades.
  • 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.
  • Red Dwarf: In "Dear Dave", Cat attempts to convey his news to the rest of the crew through charades (because he is bored). His attempt to mime 'the mail-pod has arrived and crashed into my clothes' is construed by the others as everything from 'we're about to fly into a black hole' to 'we're being attacked by zombies'.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Slammer: When the Governor loses his memory, Gimbert attempts to mime the name of the next act to him from offstage. The first attempt to convey the name of acrobat Alina Eskina is interpreted by the Governor as "a lean, mean laughing monkey".
  • 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.
  • In The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, Zack has to pretend to be Cody for an interview and Cody (who can't be himself after accidentally messing up his hair and not wanting to be embarrassed) stands from behind trying to signal his brother over what to say. It didn't go well.
    Interviewer: Who's your favourite President?
    Zack: That's easy. President Carter.
    Interviewer: Why?
    Zack: "Why?"? He uh... [Cody raises his hands up] builds... builds houses. Builds houses for... [Cody puts a napkin on his head] nuns! Builds houses for nuns. Builds his houses for [Cody walks around with his back down] old people? [Cody shivers] Cold people. Builds houses for [Cody walks around wierdly] poor people? [Cody gives a disapproving look] Builds houses for poor people.
  • The Worst Year of My Life, Again: In "Maths Test", Simon attempts to mime to Alex that Mr Norris had announced that the art teacher was sick. Alex somehow interprets this as they are going to have a maths test.

  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Jackson Park Express" is built on this trope, as the entire song is about a man on the bus who continuously misinterprets the nonverbal gestures of a woman passenger. Somehow he turns her unconscious twitches into an epic unspoken tale of Love at First Sight and their subsequent bittersweet breakup.

  • In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pseudolus pretends to be a soothsayer telling an old man's fortune, while Hysterium gestures frantically behind the old man's back.
    "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?"
  • The Play That Goes Wrong: Combined with Miming the Cues when Annie as Florence loses her script pages and Dennis tries to act out the response she needs to give for a question he asks:
    Dennis/Perkins: Where were you when the murder was committed?
    [he alternates between pointing down and pretending to drink tea]
    Annie/Florence: [misinterpreting] I was on the floor with a moustache.
    Robert/Thomas: That makes perfect sense; so was I.

    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?"
  • In Jak II: Renegade Onin is a wise old soothsayer who gives Jak and Daxter advice many times during their quest. She's mute, and so normally communicates through hand motions which are translated by Pecker, her Moncaw companion. When Daxter tries to do this himself, he fails miserably.
  • 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.
  • Kotaro 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.

    Web Animation 
  • Mime from Happy Tree Friends is not incapable of speech, but he chooses not to out of showmanship. This includes when calling 911 in "Who's to Flame?", with predictable results.
  • My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Summertime Shorts: In "Epic Fail", Sunset Shimmer does increasingly outrageous gestures to warn Rarity that she has a piece of lettuce stuck in her teeth. Rarity believes that Sunset is greeting her or being playful, and can only look bewildered as Sunset resorts to chewing one of the library's potted plants' leaves (this being Sunset's epic fail). Rarity still doesn't get it, leading to her own epic fail.


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Drives the plot of a No-Dialogue Episode of CatDog that parodied old, black-and-white silent works.
  • DuckTales (2017): In "Day Trip of Doom!", Webby is trying (and failing) to talk her way out of an awkward situation with the manager at Funso's Fun Zone. Louie makes a throat-slashing "cut it out" gesture, but Webby misinterprets it and briefly looks like she's seriously considering attacking the man with a spork before Louie stops her.
  • 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.
  • In Family Guy, the news had a Mime Weatherman. When he tried to communicate rain, Tom thought he was stating that "peoples' parents will throw fecal matter down on them from the rooftops." Until an angry glare from said mime set Tom straight.
  • Before the end of an episode of KaBlam! the director makes a stretching motion with his hands. June asks if that means he wants her to make taffy.
  • This leads to an Overly-Long Gag in the Kaeloo episode "Let's Play Cops and Robbers", where Quack Quack tries to communicate with Stumpy using Hand Signals.
  • In the My Life as a Teenage Robot episode "Speak No Evil", Jenny loses the language disc that allows her to speak English, and tries to explain the problem to Dr. Wakeman with a game of charades. Dr. Wakeman manages to understand "I cannot...", but gets confused when Jenny gets to "speak English", misinterpreting the sentence as "I cannot stop eating cheese in my milkshake" and "I cannot stop petting those cute little puppies". When Jenny becomes so frustrated by this that she complains in Japanese, Dr. Wakeman figures out that Jenny is unable to speak English, but doesn't figure out that this was what Jenny had already been trying to tell her.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In a case of both this and Shown Their Work, this is why the ponies are afraid of Zecora when she first goes to Ponyville. She digs her hoof into the ground, which is something that zebras do in real life to search for water. Unfortunately for her, for horses, this is a threat gesture. When Twilight goes to meet her, the other ponies warn her that Zecora is "scary and threatening". She WAS, it was just due to a misunderstanding rather than malicious intent.
  • Peep and the Big Wide World: One episode has the birds trying to find acorns for the squirrel. Quack consistently misunderstands the squirrel's pantomiming, thinking he's saying "he wants to dance with a chicken" or "frogs are flying in from the west".
  • The Penguins of Madagascar: In "Antics On Ice" Skipper and Rico leave their seats during an ice-skating show in order to deal with a security guard backstage; when Private questions their disappearance Kowalski tells him that they went to get popcorn. When the two return a few minutes later Kowalski tries to convey the original excuse to Skipper:
    Skipper: Well we were, uh, buh...
    [Kowalski makes a sweeping gesture towards his beak]
    Skipper: We were, uh, er, punching ourselves...?
    [Kowalski shakes head, brings his flipper up to his beak and imitates eating]
    Skipper: Eating our flippers?
    [Kowalski facepalms]
  • A memorable example occurred in Phineas and Ferb when Perry the Platypus is acting as Doctor Doofenshmirtz's wingman on the latter's date. Perry tries to signal to Doof to invite the woman to dinner:
    Doofenshmirtz: [watching Perry's gestures] Oh, well let's see... we could rub our stomachs, and point to our mouths, and later we can roll our eyes and put our heads in our hands...
  • In The Simpsons episode "Homer at the Bat", Homer is playing baseball on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team, and Mr Burns is the manager. Unfortunately, Homer zones out while Mr Burns is explaining what the signals are, and later, when Homer is up to bat, Mr Burns starts doing a series of strange actions. Homer has no idea what he's trying to say, and gets hit in the head with the ball and knocked out as a result.
  • Happens in an episode of Storm Hawks when Aerrow is attempting to interpret Radarr's mime:
    Aerrow: You were... Boxing? Dancing? Shucking corn?

    Real Life 
  • Just try acting out The Ugly Barnacle silently: this is going to be invoked, especially since it's hard to pretend to be a barnacle.
  • This can happen pretty often when dealing with those with NLD and/or Asperger's Syndrome. Visually impaired people also have this to a lesser or greater extent, sometimes virtually incapable of picking up non-verbal cues.
  • 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 problems, 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."
    • In the UK, the peace sign reversed (knuckles out) is their version of Flipping the Bird.
  • This trope is part of why cats and dogs famously tend to have trouble getting along. Many signals used by dogs have completely different meanings for cats. A dog waving its tail is happy, while a cat doing the same is showing aggression or fear. Cats "bow" to say hello; dogs do it to signal playtime. The dog sees the cat bow and assumes it's time to play, then starts wagging its tail, causing the cat to become startled because its greeting seems to have made the dog angry. However, cats and dogs which live together for extended periods of time do eventually start understanding each other.


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