I’m naturally a very animated conversationalist, and tend to move my hands and lock eyes for that dramatic effect. Throughout my travels I’ve admittedly never given too much though to the different hand gestures around the world and how they may be perceived. It took a night of hanging out with some new friends (and a lot of Ankor) while in Cambodia for me to finally discover that I had been possibly transgressing for years! Where in the U.S eye contact is seen as confident, and the use of hand gestures, like our index finger, is just part of the way we communicate, in Cambodia, both can be misconstrued as rudeness. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before a good natured local gave me the low down on the cultural social graces and in the end everyone –Dao included – had a good ribbing at my expense.
It’s never intentional, and almost always meant good heartily, but even the most culturally sensitive of us can sometimes insult an entire nation and not even realize it. Imagine finding yourself in prison for just trying to wave someone over, or worse yet, insinuate someone’s mother is promiscuous by giving them “the five fathers” (more on this below).
The reality is that language, for most travelers, is still a very realistic barrier. And in order to communicate we resort to body language and hand gestures, pantomiming clumsily whatever message we are trying to get across. And with hand gestures around the world being extensions of culture, a thumbs up may mean “all good” in one country, but just as easily “up yours” in another.
Hopefully this post can save you all the same embarrassment and avoid having to salvage your dignity like I did.
Rude or Misunderstood Hand Gestures Around the World
The moutza (talk to the Hand)– I can’t imagine any circumstance where this gesture isn’t considered rude. Particularly in Greece, the symbolic gesture of talking to the hand is reminiscent of the ancient practice of rubbing dirt and feces in to someone’s face. Not as grievous as it once was, the Moutza stills holds significant offense. Variations of this action are also deemed no-nos in Nigeria, Middle East and Mexico. Better to just avoid it to be safe.
The Five Fathers – This is an odd one, and unless we’re scraping the dirt out of our nails, I don’t see many scenarios where you’ll be caught doing this. But just for giggles I’m going to throw this one in. In Arab countries and the Caribbean the gesture of pointing your index finger at the grouped fingers of your other hand is suggestive of someone having an untraceable lineage, hence the name of “Five Fathers.” In other words, your mama has no idea who your papa is. That’s a rough one eh?
Pointing with Index finger – ok, so this one is a bit of a no brainer, but I still managed to get myself into trouble with this one. Now, I never actually point my finger directly at anyone, but I do have the bad habit of being over animated while extending the index finger. But in countries in Belgium, and parts of Asia, like Cambodia and Indonesia, even slight usage can be seen as rude. In India, the gesture is specifically reserved for the “inferior”, and they prefer to use the chin or the full hand instead. If you’re like me, it’s probably best just to break the habit and avoid the misunderstanding.
The “V” – For us in North America, many parts of Asia, and even Bulgaria, the “V” sign signifies Peace or Victory. Popularized by 1960’s counter culture, and now prolific in photos everywhere, the “V” is usually quite benign. However, in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom and South Africa it can be taken as an insult, especially with the palm facing inwards. Some places it could just mean the number 2.
Head Shake – Ready to test the limits of your coordination? Trying saying “yes” while shaking your head side to side, or saying “no” while nodding. If you ever find yourself in Bulgaria or Greece you just might have to get comfortable it. The head shake or Head nod mean the complete opposite of what we are familiar with in North America and most other parts of the world.
Horns: Rock on, but not in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Colombia, Brazil and the Baltic’s where it implies your wife is cheating on you!
Come on over (the come hither)- In certain places in Asia and the Pacific, like Hong Kong and the Philippines, the gesture of beckoning someone while curling your index finger into your upturned hand is incredibly offensive and typically seen as a way to address dogs. The Philippines takes the insult so much more personally, that you can actually be arrested. Let’s just say this is not the best way to make friends.
Crossed arms – We’ve all crossed our arms at one point, either because we were cold, or simply had nowhere to put our arms. Well, in Finland, crossing your arms, might very well get you into some unexpected fisticuffs and can be seen as a sign of arrogance.
Hand Shake – A common form of greeting in most parts of the world, you would think the typical Hand Shake is hard to mess up. Well, believe it or not, there are rules: in France, light and quick are preferred over strong and vigorous; In Guatemala, a gentle handshake is proper; In Germany, shaking hands with one hand in your pocket is rude; In Iran, shaking hands with a child shows respect to the parents, In Bangladesh, men will never shake the hand of a woman, while in Denmark, on the complete opposite of the spectrum, it’s proper to shake the hand of a woman before the man. Some cultures even forgo handshakes altogether for other forms of greetings like the eyebrow raise in Philippines, or the Namaste prayer or “wai” in India, Thailand and Cambodia. Best way to approach this is just greet others how they greet you.
Feet Gestures – Not a Hand Gesture, but still very important to know! You can pretty much bet that, besides in your own home, propping your feet up on tables or even chairs anywhere in the world can be deemed rude. In certain countries though, like Turkey, and virtually everywhere in Asia, pointing or exposing your “unclean” soles or feet at anyone, is liken to the greatest form of contempt. The feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the human body and should never be exposed. This includes crossing your legs knee over knee as opposed to ankle over knee. On a side note, never step on anyone in India.
Thumbs up: Another easily misconstrued hand gesture, this innocuous symbol in most countries in the world means “it’s all good,” or the number “1,” but in Greece, Australia, Latin America, parts of Africa and the Middle East, the thumbs up denotes the more graphic meaning of “up your butt”.
Ok Sign- in most of Europe and the CIS (commonwealth of independent states) the “Ok” gesture, means anything butt – literally. Flashing this symbol in Greece or Spain is implying someone is a butthole, and in France it means the equivalent of Worthless. An upside version of it is offensive in Brazil and Uruguay. Interestingly enough, in Japan it can denote money, as in coins.
Eye contact – Most of us have been told that good eye contact is both polite and displays confidence. Although true in most places like Brazil, Spain and of course North America, you’ll find that in Zimbabwe, Ghana and parts of Asia, like Cambodia, it’s seen as rude or even defiant.
Chin Flick or chin stroke: Flicking your chin with the back of your hand in Italy, France, Belgium and Tunisia is pretty much equivalent to the ubiquitous middle finger. But before you totally write off this gesture, in Portugal and Paraguay, it simply means, “I don’t know.”
The Fig gesture – Got your nose, got your nose! A children’s game for most in North America, and a gesture for good luck in Brazil, the Fig in Turkey, Russia, Indonesia and Costa Rica is both offensive and symbolic of the female genitalia. Talk about mixed messages!
Finger cross – We all could use a little luck, especially if you end up using this gesture in Vietnam or Paraguay where it’s considered offensive. In Vietnam, the crossing of the fingers is believe to resemble female genitals and is particularly egregious if directed at someone. It’s probably safer to just carry a rabbit’s foot around.
If all else fails, and you forget this list of helpful hand gestures around the world, just smile, because I’m sure that’s universal. Now go forth and don’t do like I do!
Did I miss any? What are you experiences?
Latest posts by Carey (see all)
- Travel Hack Friday: #DIY Orange Peel Oil Candle #travelhacks - October 16, 2015
- Hanoi Vietnam, The Photoscape! #Hanoi #Vietnam #Southeastasia - October 5, 2015
- Travel Hack Friday: How to Find Edible Bugs - October 2, 2015