HERE ARE FIVE COMMON American gestures that will get you into hot water in foreign countries.
1. Watch Your Fingers in Italy
We were on our way to Rome after days of hiking the Cinque Terre. As we walked through the train looking for our seats, Kati kept complaining about her mosquito bites. People stopped mid-conversation to give us dirty looks, turning and whispering to each other.
I couldn’t understand this open hostility. Was it that obvious we were Americans? What were we doing wrong?
As I turned to ask my friend what she thought about about the glares, I caught her scratching a nasty bite on her chin, flicking her fingers in a backwards wave from her neck. I grabbed her hand and shuffled, embarrassed, toward our seats. It all began to make sense.
To an American, Kati had just been scratching her chin. To an Italian, she was giving them the equivalent of the middle finger.
2. Don’t Tell Them to Come Hither in Japan.
I tried teaching English in Japan for a couple years, and was trying hard to keep up with Japanese gestures. One day I beckoned for a student with my index finger. Her mouth dropped open and other students stared.
While in America the “come hither” finger is a perfectly acceptable way to ask someone to come to you, in Japan it’s a highly offensive gesture. I later learned that this gesture isn’t welcome in most Asian countries, and symbolizes death in Singapore.
The Japanese way to beckon someone looks like an American wave, palm out and fingers waving down.
3. Keep Your Thumbs Down in the Middle East
A friend of mine was once bargaining for trinkets at a street market in Iran, negotiating for a decent price. Although they couldn’t speak the same language, he and the storekeeper were having an agreeable exchange…until one good ol’ American gesture got him into trouble.
After they agreed on a price, he gave the shopkeeper a hearty thumbs-up. The shopkeeper’s brow crinkled in confusion, then he muttered something in Farsi before turning away. My friend was baffled until a fellow traveler leaned over and told him that his hand gesture signified that the shopkeeper could stick his price where the sun don’t shine.
In certain parts of the Middle East, thumbs-up is definitely a highly-offensive thumbs-down.
4. Order Beer With Words in England.
Along the same lines as the Middle Eastern thumbs-up is the English backwards peace sign (your index and middle finger held up with your palm facing toward you). It means the same thing as giving the middle finger in America, and will get you in trouble with the bartender faster than you can say “Cheerio!”
If the pub is loud and crowded, shout your order for two beers over the din rather than raising two fingers.
5. Is It OK to Use the OK Sign?
Many parts of the world interpret a circle made with the index finger and thumb, with the three remaining fingers up as “OK.” But some places see it a little differently.
In Japan, this gesture stands for “money.” In France it means “zero” or “worthless.” In Venezuela and Turkey, gesturing to someone in this way implies that they are a homosexual. And in Brazil, the OK sign is the same as an Italian chin flick.
If you’re stressed out about going to someplace new and inadvertently insulting the locals, don’t worry too much. No one will expect you to know everything about their culture, and people will laugh off your mistakes.
Breaking News! An Australian has been deported from Dubai after flipping the bird in traffic. Watch those fingers, everyone.
Feature photo: Lorri37
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Rachel Turner’s articles have appeared in Japanzine, The Kansai Scene, Weekender Magazine, and The Kyoto Journal. After years spent writing textbooks in the United States, she packed up and moved to a far-flung island in Japan. In her spare time she enjoys exploring her new home and butchering her new language. Check out her blog at www.amateurfatalist.com