Who hasn’t been through it before: If you’re abroad and Latin is getting you nowhere, body language is the last resort. But be careful! If you don’t know what some gestures mean beforehand and use your hands and feet to make yourself understood in other cultures, you may have to use them to defend yourself instead! This is why we have put together a list of gestures whose meaning can vary greatly from country to country.
“OK”, “great”, “awesome” – in central Europe, Great Britain, South Africa and Korea a thumb pointing upwards is definitely a positive gesture (or symbolises that you would like to hitch a ride with someone). Yet in China this hand signal is used to signify the number five. In Turkey, however, this gesture is seen as an invitation to homosexual activities. A thumb can also become extremely dangerous: In several Mediterranean counties, Russia, the Middle East and parts of Africa and Australia, if you move it in a continuous up-and-down motion it is an obscene insult.
Punching your palm
If you punch your fist into your palm, this means anger in Europe and North America: you are demonstrating to your conversation partner that they should start making tracks fast. In many parts of West Africa, this is how contracts and deals are sealed and thus shows agreement. But beware! Please try not to use this gesture in Arabic countries – there this is a flagrant demand for sex.
Those who are into more hardcore musical genres should be wary of using the “mano cornuta” when off the muddy fields full of metal fans. In Spain and Italy this is how to tell a man that he has been betrayed by his wife – he is branded as a “cuckold”. It’s better to take this gesture to South America: there it is supposed to ward off disaster, as it conjures up supernatural forces. And in Tibetan Buddhism this hand signal is a holy gesture which is used as a means of meditation. It is supposed to represent the horns of a wild yak which are pointed at an enemy.
Peace or victory
In most Western countries, making a V with your fingers stands for peace and victory: in the Far East this is emphasised with a smile at the camera. However, this is not how you should approach someone from Greece, as there it is a suave way of saying “go to hell”. In Great Britain and Australia, you should definitely be careful not to let the back of your hand face away from you when making this gesture. Otherwise this symbol means “stick two fingers up your behind” and is thus even more insulting than a middle finger (which, by the way, in almost every country means roughly the same thing).
In your local pub in Germany, holding up a finger and thumb signifies that you would like to have two more drinks. But don’t be surprised if in England you only get one beer in response to this gesture. In the USA you won’t get a beer at all at first, it will only get the waiter’s attention. In China you should only use this gesture if you are suffering from extreme thirst. This is because you will oddly enough be given eight beers. Cheers!
Forming a circle with your fingers actually has several meanings! In Germany, England, Canada, the USA and Mexico this is a way of saying that everything is as good as it can be. Divers also use this signal to show that they are doing fine. However, the Portuguese and Australians would not be as impressed by this gesture – there it stands for the number zero. In France, Belgium or Tunisia people will see this zero as insulting, as they believe it is an offensive way of signifying them.
In Japan it also means that our money has hit zero: this says that you are broke. The Chinese, however, see this as a three. Things start to get dangerous again in Arabic countries. Here, it is a threatening way of saying “watch yourself, mate!” In South America, Scandinavia and Russia the sign is taken an insult, as it reminds the people there of an undesirable orifice. In the Middle East it is a way of mocking homosexuals. In Italy you are demonstrating with this gesture that you do not understand.
Different countries, different customs, different gestures. Before jetting off into another culture, make sure you are familiar with the local practices. That way you won’t run into trouble as quickly – the wrong gestures could land you in hot water.
Blog Holiday Check (URL: http://blog.holidaycheck.de/ratgeber-reise-vorsicht-irrtum-handzeichen-im-urlaub/, visited: 10/12/2015)
Reisefreunde (URL: http://www.reise-freunde.com/2012/03/vorsicht-fettnaepfchen/, visited: 10/12/2015)
Wikipedia – List of gestures (URL:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gestures, visited: 10/12/2015)
Die Welt – Das sind die wichtigsten Handzeichen weltweit (URL: http://www.welt.de/reise/article118369800/Das-sind-die-wichtigsten-Handzeichen-weltweit.html, visited: 10/12/2015)
Spiegel.de – Trügerische Gesten (URL: http://www.spiegel.de/reise/fernweh/truegerische-gesten-mit-dem-gereckten-daumen-direkt-in-teufels-kueche-a-418229.html, visited: 10/12/2015)
Geo.de – Kultur mal anders: Gesten aus aller Welt (URL: http://www.geo.de/GEOlino/mensch/kultur-mal-anders-gesten-aus-aller-welt-59416.html, visited: 10/12/2015)