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Feature Photo : Striatic Photo: Marcusrg

Frequent travelers must be great at charades. When you need to communicate and you don’t have the luxury of a shared language, body language is invaluable. A skilled traveler can negotiate a taxi, buy food in a market, and get directions from a stranger through hand motions alone.

Things can get lost in translation, though, when a typical gesture from your country means something completely different in other parts of the world. Below are ten common North American gestures that can cause offense abroad.

1. V in Australia and England

In 1992, George Bush visited Australia and, from the window of his limousine, held up his index and middle fingers in the “V” shape, a la Winston Churchill. With the palm facing outward, this V means victory in England, or peace in North America. Too bad Bush gestured with his palm facing inward, the nonverbal equivalent of “up yours.”

2. Displaying your palms in Greece

Photo: Alan Light

We use this gesture in North America to say “stop,” or, if you’re a child of the Jerry Springer era, “talk to the hand.” In Greece, keep your palms to yourself. Holding your palms out towards a person is a highly insulting gesture. This gesture is said to be a remnant of Byzantine times, when people could taunt shackled criminals by smearing their faces with excrement.

3. Thumbs-up in Thailand

This gesture of agreement or approval is an easy reflex when language barriers are at play. Try to avoid it in Thailand, though, where it’s a sign of condemnation. It’s typically a child’s gesture, the Thai equivalent of sticking out your tongue. People will likely be more bemused than hurt if you slip up. Still, it’s a good one to avoid.

4. Beckoning in the Philippines

Curling your index finger to say “come here” is a no-no in many Asian countries. In the Philippines, this gesture is only used for dogs. To use it with a person is derogatory; suggesting that you see them as a subservient inferior. Hardly a good way to make a first impression when signaling a waiter or shop clerk.

5. Patting on the head in Sri Lanka

An open-palmed pat on the head of a child is a gesture of fondness in North America. If you need to get a child’s attention, it’s also the easiest place to tap them. In the Buddhist faith, though, the top of the head is the highest point of the body, and its where the spirit exists. To touch the top of a person’s head is highly invasive, for children and adults alike. Avoid this in any country with a predominant Buddhist population.

6. A-OK in France

Making a circle with your thumb and forefinger means “great” or “fine” in North America. It’s also used by scuba divers to communicate that there are no problems. In France, however, this gesture means “zero.” Unless you’re motioning to a French scuba diver, you might be accidentally communicating that something (or someone) is worthless. A bad idea when trying to compliment a chef on your meal.

7. “Got your Nose!” in Turkey

A first with the thumb tucked under the index finger doesn’t have a set North American meaning, except when playing “got your nose” with a child. It also means the letter “T” in American Sign Language. In Turkey, this gesture is aggressively rude; the middle-finger equivalent. Expect harsh reactions from the parents if you “steal the nose” of a Turkish child.

8. One-handed giving in Japan

In the West, people aren’t especially mindful of their hands when they offer objects to others. In Japan, though, it is polite and expected for people to make offerings with both hands. If you give someone a business card, or hand them your camera to take a photo, be sure to pass on the item with both hands. This shows that you are fully attentive and sincere in the offering. A one-handed presentation might be taken as dismissive.

9. Crossing your Fingers in Vietnam

Many western cultures make this gesture when wishing for good luck. A hand with the index and middle fingers crossed is even the logo for the UK’s National Lottery. In Vietnam, however, this is an obscene gesture, especially when done while looking at or addressing another person. The crossed fingers are said to resemble female genitals.

10. Bull Horns in Italy

North Americans raise their index and pinkie fingers like bull horns when they want to rock and roll all night… or cheer on a sports team with a name like “Cowboys” or “Longhorns.” In Italy, think twice before making this motion, especially when standing right behind a man. There, this “cuckold” gesture means that a man’s wife is being unfaithful, and he is a fool because of it. Incidentally, this gesture is quite common at Italian sports matches too, though its usually put to use after a referee’s bad call.

Culture + Religion


 

About The Author

Anne Merritt

Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.

  • http://www.aellearoundtheworld.com aelle

    Interesting! But these signs tend to become more and more homogenous, thanks to moves and pop culture. Most people in France would understand the “ok” sign in context, even if it’s not how they would spontaneously sign it. I met more confused reactions with it in Japan, where it means “money” (as the circle between thumb and index represents a coin).

    And the “got your nose” gesture is an old fashioned Sign Language sign for “clitoris”…

  • http://www.tunaozcan.com Tuna Ozcan

    Hey, I am from Turkey and it s wrong what you think about got your nose in Turkey. :)

    We do it all the time. And it s not same with middle-finger. we rarely use middle-finger cuz it s rude. if you had an agrresive reaction probably you were breaking kids nose :))

  • Oliver

    I think the Beckoning in the Philippines isn’t true all the time, people use that gesture and take the context as the meaning, but not as a hard and fast rule in gesturing.

  • http://www.OnOurOwnPath.com Bessie

    Great list! Didn’t know about the thumbs up in Thailand – going to stop using that one! I still am confused by the touching of heads. I’ve heard/ read about it and once made the mistake of touching a child’s head, but I also see adults mess up kids hair and generally pat the top of the heads of children they seem to know well here in Thailand. Still getting the hang of that one!

  • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

    Actually, #8 is not entirely true. While you certainly can give things with two hands, it’s better to receive them with both. Handing a business card to someone with one hand is ok.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsp100677/ Gurpreet

      Interesting list – I was also going to add that along the lines of number 8 – similarly in India, it’s a bit dismissive to receive something with only one hand…it’s most polite to use both hands when receiving, especially in the case of food, or at a religious ceremony. Not a hard and fast rule though…

      Giving with one hand is fine.

  • Kayla

    The horns symbol is only used to cheer on the Longhorns and not the Cowboys. Some Texas football teams have other gestures but the horns are synonimous with UT football.

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  • Taryn

    The first one about England and Australia isn’t true either… if you ever watch the British show ‘The Young Ones’ or Monty Python you will see what I mean. If you do the peace sign backwards (i.e. with your palm facing towards yourself instead of outwards) it definitely means ‘screw you’ in the UK.

    The gesture actually comes from English people doing it in wars ages ago, because those two fingers represent your bow fingers (so gesturing like that to an opponent was a very strong screw you!)

    In Australia it means the same thing, but most people use the more American style index finger these days.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsp100677/ Gurpreet

      Actually that story about the origins of the 2 fingers up insult in the UK is a myth – the popular story is that in the middle ages when England was at war with France, the French would cut of the bow fingers of captures English archers so they couldn’t fire arrows in battle, so the English would give the 2 finger gesture to the French after winning whatever war is was (can’t remember now) to show off their bow fingers still intact. This story is so entrenched in here in British culture that it’s actually sometimes called ‘The Longbowman Salute’.

      However, there isn’t any actual historical evidence that the French ever did this – there are other competing (& much less well known stories) & nobody really knows the true origins of the V sign insult…

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  • http://www.connvoyage.com Connie

    I believe the thumbs up sign in India and Nepal means that you need to use the toilet. For a Number 2. =) I know because I used to do that all the time to the kids I would meet and was met with a lot of giggles!

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  • lh

    My friend is from Spain and the bull horn insult is the same there- even with the spread of pop culture these things still hold true- the world isn’t that small yet!

  • Greek

    You are dead on about the open palm gesture. Is still considered very rude in Greece.
    To be more exact, you have to have your palm towards the ‘opponent’ and the fingers spread open (exactly like in the picture).
    Tightly closed fingers do not count as an insult.

    The historical reference is very good (kudos for retrieving that info), we may add that this gesture was also used in local traditional magic as means to empower an evil curse.

    If you wish to politely depict the number 5, open your fingers BUT have your palm facing your own face, or you get some startled looks and frowns from Greeks.

  • http://www.pbase.com/jojie_alcantara Jojie A.

    Thank you for this amusing and interesting list. A little correction, though. In my country (Philippines), gesturing with the index finger in a curling motion is offensive and degrading (unless it’s your mom motioning at you angrily), but we do not do it on dogs, either. I doubt if they even respond submissively to that.

    May I politely add that you missed out on pointing? In some Asian countries, it is downright rude. In mine, old folks teach us not to point anywhere where invisible entities (dwarfs, ghosts, witches, etc.) may possibly lurk and find themselves at the end of your accusing finger. This shows disrespect. Beware the wrath of an avenging spirit! :-)

    • Heather Carreiro

      So interesting! How do you know where not to point in order to avoid the wrath of invisible creatures?

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/E4HX3J6VH32NM3YEHQUIWNDMNQ NTBoss

        They just say that to scare  kids to not get the habit of pointing. I have to agree though, the beckoning by curling your pointer finger is not how dogs are called in the Philippines. Dogs are called by putting the tips of your fingers together (fingers pointing upward- looks sort of the way Italians gesture capisce) and make the tsk, tsk sound. It is demeaning if someone calls you this way because it means you are a dog- submissive and gullible into following anything.

    • Elsa

      Interestingly gesturing someone with your finger in a curling motion in order to get them to come to you is also offensive in the UK (you are treating them as you would a servant) unless of course you are beckoning them into your bedroom. 
       Pointing is also considering impolite, it is a sign of ill-breeding and a poor upbringing but no one is going to be offended by it as everyone does it. 

      • Galina Burton

        Absolutely agree with Elsa on both. RE pointing – it can be extended to a lot of European countries’ culture, including good old USSR (unfortunately, things are changing to the worse over there as younger generations try to emulate their western peers “cool” behaviour).   

    • Tim Petty

      Interesting Jojie A. Your latter explanation is quite interesting, the one about the witches and ghosts. Tim Petty tintaiwan@gmail.com

    • Ryan June

      I am from Philippines too. When I point anywhere there is invisible entities I bite my finger as forgiving

  • roj

    I found this article very interesting.
    As much as I appreciate Anne137′s thoughtfulness in sharing this info,
    some inaccurate understandings should be clarified here.
    I’m a Thai who had lived in USA for some time.
    In Thailand, gesture no.3 is not applicable for adults
    and only is among very young children in kindergarten.
    It would be serious to do gesture no.5 to any Thai
    for that would be an insult.
    By the way, in Thailand, if you try speaking Thai
    and any Thai person laugh. It does not mean
    that he/she laugh at you but laughing means
    appreciating your feat to try speaking Thai.

  • http://1dad1kid.com Talon (@1Dad1Kid)

    The thumb between fingers is also the equivalent of giving the middle finger in Nicaragua as well.

    Just a comment about “in the Buddhist faith.” There are various schools of Buddhism, and what one school practices isn’t necessarily practiced across the spectrum of Buddhism. This particular belief in the spirit leaving the head is not really a religious one. It’s where culture & religion have interwoven. So instead of saying Buddhist-predominant nations, I would simply encourage people to avoid patting the head of someone in Asia in general.

    The beckoning gesture with the curled index finger is considered rude in MANY nations. When I teach cultural awareness to healthcare providers and others, I encourage people to simply stop the practice period since it is offensive in so many cultures.

    Great article. Learned some new things.

  • Sarah F

    I feel like curling your finger in the “come here” gesture is fairly rude here in the US as well. It is at least presumptuous. I would only use it with a child that I knew and needed to speak to about a behavioral issue, etc. Never with a fellow adult, waitress, etc.

    Good list; cultural issues like this are so important to know. You don’t want to go someplace and offend people without even knowing it!

  • Ruby

    Yikes, might’ve given the thumbs up in Thailand. Am rapidly scrolling through my memory banks now.

  • Sdfsed

    Thanks! That’s such a help.
    I used 2 get in trouble all the time 4 doing the ‘V’ since I’m in australia when I was little. I understand it better now .My dad explained when I was 5 and I asked why.

    I’ll remember 2 keep my hands 2 myself in Europe!!!

  • Iknow Better

    In Ceylon (Sri Lanka) People might not like petting head as an intrusion. BUT it has nothing to do with Buddhism. That concept is mostly Hinduism 5. Patting on the head in Sri Lanka

    An open-palmed pat on the head of a child is a gesture of fondness in
    North America. If you need to get a child’s attention, it’s also the
    easiest place to tap them. In the Buddhist faith, though, the top of the
    head is the highest point of the body, and its where the spirit exists.
    To touch the top of a person’s head is highly invasive, for children
    and adults alike. Avoid this in any country with a predominant Buddhist
    population.

  • http://shoreultralounge.com/ Long Beach Nightlife

    Wow…That was a lot informative, No crossed fingers in Vietnam…LOL.
    Thank you Ann.

  • Aswildchild

    Fuck you Vietnam! i will cross my fingers all i want so suck on that

  • http://twitter.com/K_Einsel karen

    Wow those are really interesting. Not that I plan on doing any traveling. I sure could have used them when I was the manager at a rental car company though. :-) Even though we were a small family owned company we had people come in from all over the world.

  • Bryc Velasco

    Very useful article…

  • Bobby Brock-Jenkins

    Ahaaaa.

  • Sami Sessler

    Good things to know.

  • Rip Arianna Thompson

    Good information to start a research paper on misunderstood symbols by other cultures.. It had me thinking about my gestures a bit more

  • Amanda Petry

    Wow. Good to know!

  • Ervinlystar Kurbah

    I didnt know that. :)

  • http://dbakeca.com Dbakeca Italia

    nice post:)

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