32

I’ve watched the Inglourious Basterds movie. In the bar scene the English spy is ordering three beers and held his three fingers up and by this giving himself away.

The English spy orders three beers with a gesture showing three fingers: index, middle and ring

Is it true in the real life? When the natives count on fingers do they start from the thumb?

  • 9
    Actually, this three-finger gesture is more difficult than the Vulcan greeting for me – Hagen von Eitzen Aug 1 '15 at 11:05
  • 2
    For people interested in this scene, here’s IMDb’s FAQ about it. – unor Aug 1 '15 at 13:55
  • 9
    Ha, I never thought that anybody would do it any other way.. - live and learn :-) – TaW Aug 1 '15 at 17:10
  • 3
    Meta discussion regarding the on-topicness of such questions: When are questions on culture-dependent non-verbal communication on-topic?. – Wrzlprmft Nov 15 '15 at 15:07
  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about some kind of behavior of German people, but not about German language. – Matthias Nov 18 '15 at 23:04
43

I don't have hard evidence like studies for you, only personal experience (eastern Germany): Yes, we do start counting from the thumb. My kids and their friends in Kindergarten do it that way, my colleagues do, my friends and family count like that aswell. In fact my older daughter (5yo) was only today experimenting to count in different ways, and in the end dismissed all the "wrong" ways. I don't know any Germans who don't count like that. My wife, who is a teacher, says she has seen russian migrant kids counting from the index finger, but no Germans either.

The scene in the movie is plausible.

Edit based on the comments: Maybe as a rule of thumb, keeping down only the pinky (on its side of the hand) feels awkward and will be avoided by first prioritizing the thumb (until 3) and then switching thumb for pinky (at 4). Signaling "one" might be done with the index finger if the thumb is not unambigious enough("thumbs up"), but counting will start at the thumb, so there probably should be made a clear distinction between counting and signaling. When counting, the pinky-thumb switch is not done by everybody, as a non representative survey among a couple of locals who happened to be at hand showed just now.

Counting/Iterating

  1. _....
  2. _l...
  3. _ll..
  4. _lll. or .llll (appears to be 70/30)
  5. _llll

Signaling

  1. _.... or .l... depending on ambiguity wrt. "thumbs up"
  2. .ll.. or _l... (appears to be 50/50)
  3. _ll.. definitely
  4. .llll definitely
  5. _llll

(The ASCII art is supposed to be right hands when looking at their backs, no offense to lefties implied!)

  • 12
    But note that two beers would possibly be ordered either with thumb and index finger or with index and middle (like a "victory sign") and four beers almost always with all fingers sans thumb. – Stephie Jul 31 '15 at 20:53
  • 2
    Yes, that's the central q of the OP. Maybe as a rule of thumb (snickers), keeping down only the pinky (on its side of the hand) feels awkward and will be avoided by first prioritizing the thumb (at 3) and then switching thumb for pinky (at 4). I guess that's good enough for extending the answer :D – hiergiltdiestfu Aug 1 '15 at 0:07
  • 7
    I am from Bavaria, living in Austria and can just agree to that. Also, nice ASCII drawings. Really made the post better to understand. – Josef Aug 1 '15 at 9:10
  • 2
    Fantastic answer! Signed up just to give you a +1 / thumbs-up :) – Stijn de Witt Aug 1 '15 at 11:59
  • 1
    To any offended lefties, imagine the drawings are left-hands viewed from in front :D – Mark K Cowan Aug 2 '15 at 16:27
17

Always order 5 beers! Could save your life ...

When ordering beers, Germans use this, everything else feels weird :-)

  • 4 is without thumb
  • 3 is with thumb
  • 2 is without thumb
  • 1 is without thumb

When counting 1 to 5 or 1 to 10, start at the thumb and add more fingers, then start at the thumb of the second hand.

So yeah, the English spy skipped some classes in spy school.

People using the thumb for combinations 1, 2 or 4 would draw attention, too, that's more like school kids would hold their fingers.

Think I saw old people do the two finger pistol when ordering, so maybe for young ones the victory sign is probably cooler.

  • 3
    Did you register just for this answer? :D Cheers and welcome to SE. - - Regarding the 5 beers, there's also a tasteless sketch that goes like this: "Fünf Bier für die Männer vom Sägewerk! holds up hand_..ll" :D – hiergiltdiestfu Aug 1 '15 at 0:50
  • 1
    hehe, i spam as a guest, but it lets you pick a name :) nice joke ^^ – 5beers Aug 1 '15 at 0:52
  • 4
    1 and 2 with a thumb is also quite common, actually! – Klaster Aug 1 '15 at 10:12
  • 3
    When statically showing a number (as in the case of ordering beer) I'd do as 5beers describes, but 2 might alternatively be shown with thumb+index. - When dynamically counting one by one, I'd start from the closed fist by opening thumb, then index, then middle, then pinky(!), then ring finger. - When emphasizing the count by tipping the current finger with the index finger of the other hand, I'd go either thumb, index, middle, ring, pinky or reverse (at any rate with the hand open from beginning). - Maybe there's just too many ways to count... – Hagen von Eitzen Aug 1 '15 at 11:12
  • 1
    @hiergiltdiestfu LOL yes! For the non-german speaking: 'Die Männer vom Sägewerk' translates to 'The men from the sawmill'. :) – Stijn de Witt Aug 1 '15 at 12:02
4

I don't think the region matter in this case. We learn these things in childhood. From teachers, parents, sibling. Some are more comfortable using thumb and index finger than (index,middle) finger. I'm from india. Most people around me use this

  • 1 - index
  • 2- index and middle
  • 3 -index, middle and ring finger
  • 4 -without thumb
  • So thumb only comes into play when you want to show number 5. But still i saw many people from my town using thumb for pointing out 2 and 3. So it depends on people around us, everything we learned until now is imitation.

    Now this post encouraged me to use different combination of fingers to count or show. Hope i would not be embarrassed pointing out wrong combination.

    Keep counting!

    • 4
      Where in Germany do you live or do you still live in India? Because I don't know anybody in Germany who counts like you do - I'd count mostly with my thumb and so do most people around me (Bavaria as well as Rhine-area). – Martin Aug 3 '15 at 13:33
    4

    Non-verbal communication with hands is very culturally dependend. It is not as similar as smiling. We ran studies between Chinese and western cultures and the differences are huge in certain areas. Funny example is always the "okay" sign of divers (putting index and thumb together) which means in the Arabian culture a..h... . A quick link for you about counting in different cultures http://news.discovery.com/adventure/how-to-count-with-your-fingers-in-different-languages.htm

    • Indeed, forming a ring by putting the index finger and thumb together also carries the same obscene meaning in Germany and some other Western places. Interestingly, this link features an ad from the United Arab Emirates where the gesture appears prominently and is meant to have a positive meaning. It is important to be aware of such secondary meanings that are unrelated to counting ;) – O. R. Mapper Aug 2 '15 at 21:09
    • Both links here are dead. :( 2018 and link rot was never fixed and will never be fixed. – Jürgen A. Erhard Oct 18 '18 at 23:37
    3

    I live in Dresden, former east Germany, and here, as well as in Berlin, you count as follows: 1~thumb, 2~thumb+index, 3~thumb+index +ring finger,4~all 4 no thumb, and 5 with all five fingers. I have never seen here any German who would start counting with his index finger.

    • 3
      "3~thumb+index +ring finger" - really?? That sounds truly difficult. I am kind of incapable of holding up just these three fingers, actually. – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '15 at 7:33

    Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.