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While teaching a class last week, I made the widely-recognized hand gesture (an open circle with the thumb and index finger, with the other 3 fingers loosely or sharphy extended... I'm not sure exactly how mine looks, as it's like muscle memory and I don't consciously think about the exact shape I'm making) while simultaneously saying "okay...". I can't remember the full sentence but it was something related to the math course I'm teaching.

Now I suddenly learn that it means "white power" to some people (some Americans). To make matters even worse, I'm white, and I make a very similar-looking symbol while indicating 3 things (some use the middle 3 fingers for this; but I've always done it the other way) or counting to a number between 3 and 5 with my fingers. Good heavens!

Would I possibly get into administrative trouble for doing this, if a student were to report it?

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    Answers to "Would I possibly" questions are almost always positive. The better questions are "how likely" and "how serious trouble". Accusations generally tend to cause trouble, whether or not they are founded; but the total number of cases in which the trouble was serious and permanent (for reasons as trivial as yours) is rather small (in the US, I could name 2-3 at most; Canada is worse). I suspect the OK-sign panic will be gone the way of the dinosaurs in a year or two, but in the process I have no idea how much havoc it will wreak (most of it, probably, outside academia). – darij grinberg Sep 15 '18 at 23:41
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    Note that everything that is happening is happening just according to keikaku: The "white power" meaning of the gesture was invented by 4chan /pol/ in the first place, probably with the exact goal of causing a moral panic. – darij grinberg Sep 15 '18 at 23:41
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    Incidentally, Wikipedia suggests this gesture has various other (pre-existing) meanings in different cultures, some of them offensive. If you plan to do much international travel (which many academics do), you might want to try to get out of the habit of using this gesture anyway. – Nate Eldredge Sep 15 '18 at 23:58
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    In some cultures that is a bit offensive, representing something else that is round and offensive :) – Fábio Dias Sep 16 '18 at 2:07
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    I wonder why nobody said so already: Add info on your country to the question. The question would not make any sense if asked in some countries. – Dirk Sep 16 '18 at 13:23
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The whole "White-power" hand sign started as a joke from 4chan or something like that. It was kind of a ploy to get the more gullible liberals all worked up for nothing. It was kind of laughable at first. However, it would seem that it's becoming more and more accepted as an actual WP symbol. I believe that some white-supremacist groups have even ended up adopting it. Still, I wouldn't worry about it as long as it doesn't seem as if you are actually pushing the agenda.

You could always swap it for "thumbs up" or, my favorite, good ol' finger guns.

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    +1 for thumbs up, even if you're at my school, because Gig 'Em. – Sean Roberson Sep 16 '18 at 3:17
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    At my kids' school, you would get in trouble with the hand guns. – Martin Argerami Sep 16 '18 at 5:23
  • In some cultures, "thumbs up" is an offensive sexual gesture. – arp Apr 7 at 22:16
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Quite aside from the ridiculous white power thing, you might want to consider not using that gesture, as it's easily misinterpreted. Wikipedia says:

  • it's offensive in parts of central and southern Europe;
  • it can mean "zero" or "worthless" in France and Belgium;
  • in various Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and South American countries, it denotes the anus generally, can mean "You're an asshole!" and can be homophobic;
  • it also has associations with the female genitals;
  • in Arab countries, it represents the evil eye and is used as a curse;
  • Wikipedia's a bit vague about its use in American Sign Language, where it seems to have a number of different uses, some of which are claimed to be offensive.

Sure, any hand gesture has the potential to be offensive to someone1 and most people will realise you're not trying to be offensive if you make one of these gestures in a non-offensive context while not looking offensive, you're probably not being offensive. Still, the okay gesture does seem more likely to cause confusion ("Why is he looking happy and saying 'asshole'?") than other gestures.

1 Thumbs up has negative meanings in some places; gesturing "two" by extending the first and second fingers vertically with the back of the hand towards the viewer means "f*** off" in the UK, etc.

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    I don't know where Wikipedia got the idea that it can mean "worthless" in France (it isn't clear if the citation refers to the meaning in "Mediterranean countries" or also to France and Belgium). It just means zero. It's a circle. It isn't offensive. – user9646 Sep 16 '18 at 11:37
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    @NajibIdrissi OK but it's still potentially confusing if you "say" OK and your audience "hears" zero. – David Richerby Sep 16 '18 at 13:32
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It's fine. Don't keep such track of the latest silliness. Let it pass.

I do think it is a bit informal. That is if the teacher calls on you, you should answer him directly. But signalled across a laboratory or the like, I would have no issue with it.

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    OP seems to be the teacher. – cag51 Sep 15 '18 at 23:59
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As you are teaching maths, then it’s fine when used in conjunction with the material, ie having just completed an exercise with simultaneous equations and asking if it was understood.

However, if you are teaching politics or examining causes of racial tension in a sociology type subject then I would suggest no.

Also, in some countries the "Thumbs up" gesture is not considered polite either... "sit on this..."

  • Good point about the importance of context. – David Richerby Sep 16 '18 at 10:01
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It's just an 'okay' sign. Unfortunately, it seems the reality is that it may be increasingly inappropriate to convey this gesture.

At the very least, it opens the opportunity for misinterpretation and perhaps should be avoided for this reason alone.

In this day and age, it can be wagered that someone will jump on the chance to be offended by the continued use of this gesture.

It should be okay to make the okay sign, though. It should be.

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