Travelers who visit foreign lands and who don’t have a good grasp of the local language often rely on hand signs to make themselves understood. But if you want to befriend the locals or just avoid angering everyone around, you should watch their hands very carefully. What may seem like an innocuous hand gesture in North America can have severe social consequences abroad. While pointing with an index finger seems to be rude everywhere in the world, most hand signs meaning vary widely from country to country — a simple thumbs-up or even crossed fingers can land you in hot water.

This guide to hand signs meaning in foreign countries will help you stay polite when abroad — or teach you how to make your point in a bad-mannered, and sometimes obscene, way if that’s what you’re after.

Insulting hand gestures

Backwards peace sign in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia

Person making a hand gesture, the V sign backwards, meaning "up yours" in certain countries

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While making a V with you index and middle finger is a sign of victory, if turned backwards, it is the nonverbal equivalent of “up yours” in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.

Holding your palms out in Greece

We use this gesture in North America to say “stop,” or, if you’re childish and petulant “talk to the hand.” In Greece, however, holding your palms out towards a person is a highly insulting gesture known as the Moutza. This gesture is said to be a remnant of Byzantine times, when people could taunt shackled criminals by smearing their faces with excrement.

Thumbs-up in Thailand and the Middle East

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.

In the Middle East, a thumbs-up gesture means “up yours”, the equivalent to the North American middle finger gesture.

Beckoning in the Philippines

person beckoning someone else on the streets

Photo: ViDI Studio/Shutterstock

Curling your index finger to say “come here” is a no-no in many Asian countries. This gesture is derogatory; suggesting that you see them as a subservient inferior.

In Japan, the come-hither hand sign is highly offensive too. The Japanese way to beckon someone looks like an American wave, palm out and fingers waving down. This hand gesture carries the same meaning in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Ghana.

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 it’s 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.

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.

In Brazil, when the A-OK gesture is turned upside down, it is equivalent to giving someone the finger.

In Russia, this hand gesture can be interpreted as propositioning someone for sex.

In Japan, this gesture stands for “money” when the fingers are pointed downwards.

“Got your Nose!” in Turkey

A fist 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.

In Nicaragua, this gesture is also considered very rude. It is equivalent to giving someone the finger.

In Indonesia, the “Got your nose” hand sign can be interpreted as asking someone for sex.

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. While not insulting, one-handed presentation might be taken as dismissive.

Bull Horns in Italy

person doing a horn gesture with their fingers at a concert.

Photo: UnderTheSea/Shutterstock

North Americans raise their index and pinkie fingers like bull horns when they want to rock and roll all night. 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. The hand gesture carries the same meaning in Brazil, Colombia, Portugal, and Spain.

Dirty hand gestures

The meaning of crossed 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.