Recently, I was surprised at the numerous hand gestures throughout the world that may be complimentary in one location but offensive in the next.
As an American, I had been fairly ignorant at just how many of the bodily gestures I might find acceptable could be insulting to others. And, as a frequent traveler, I don’t want to be the bad tourist and disrespect anyone in their own land when I travel there; my aim is to be a proper travel ambassador.
So, I figured I’d write this article, and I’d open my own eyes as I go along. Especially as a New Yorker fortunate enough to share his city with representatives of virtually every culture on earth, I hope to be as respectful as I can be, even on my own turf. Though there are a thousand and one other gestures that can be offensive in one country or another, these are the ones that can have both good and bad interpretations.
Here is a list of gestures from around the world and what they mean:
The “Clenched Fist”
Though most of the world recognizes a clenched fist as a symbol of solidarity, unity, or defiance against an oppressive regime, it can have some negative connotations in a few countries. In America, both the Black Power and White Power movements have used a version of it as a logo, so there could be some bad racial notes given off.
A closed fist in Pakistan can be misinterpreted as an “Up Yours!”. Slapping a hand down on the opposite bicep and then jerking that opposite hand’s clenched fist up is widely recognized as a way of telling someone to go fuck themselves, in quite a macho way, as the clenched fist combines with the forearm straight up in the air, representative of a giant phallus.
Arguably the most notorious and universally recognized of the world’s obscene gestures, this one is almost unmistakable the world over as a sincere “Fuck You”. However, in many Asian countries, especially Japan, the middle finger is commonly used to point, similar to using the index finger to point in the Western world.
Though younger generations have been more educated in Western culture and are more aware of its derogatory meaning, older Asians using the “finger” are still commonplace. I don’t know the exact reasons why middle finger pointing is more common to Asians, but I have read that there are several possible answers. Accuracy was suggested, as the middle finger seems to be more accurate than the index finger when used for pointing. The justification for this answer was that the middle finger is less mistaken by persons the pointer is trying to guide.
I have also heard convenience may play a role, as an Asian eating with chopsticks can use the middle finger to point at something during conversation without having to rearrange the chopsticks afterwards, though that might seem silly.
The “Okay” or “A-OK”
This hand gesture in much of the English-speaking world, as well as several other countries, means that everything is fine, great, okay, perfect. It is typically used by divers underwater or hungry siblings at dinner, when expressing these sentiments verbally are difficult or rude.
However, this gesture is insulting in places like southern Europe and South America, most notably Brazil. In places such as these, the circle that you make with your thumb and your index finger can mean “asshole”, “you are nothing” (because it’s like a number 0), or it can be a “Fuck you” like the middle finger elsewhere. The greatest example of this is when US President Nixon visited Brazil in the 1950’s. He got off the plane and gave the welcoming crowd a big “fuck you”! In other South American countries, it can also be used to call a person homosexual derogatorily, similar to the horribly-offensive “faggot”.
The “Thumbs Up”
Similar to the “A-OK”, the thumbs up sign is only a good thing for the blissfully-ignorant speakers of English. It has even become a metaphor, and can be spoken or written, such as in movie reviews, where a movie might receive “two thumbs up”, meaning it was a superb film. The “thumbs up” also appears to be the signal of choice for hitchhikers indicating that they would like a ride.
In Japan, it is the sign for a man or a boss (See “Pinky Finger Up” for women). On the other hand, in some Middle Eastern countries like Iran or Afghanistan, giving this gesture is quite disrespectful; If you are visiting Tehran and couchsurfing, for instance, and your host asks you how your meal was afterwards, giving the “thumbs up” is equivalent to saying “Why don’t you just sit on my erect penis?”
Yup, it’s that bad.
The “V” or Peace Sign
In America, the V, made by extending only the index and middle fingers while splayed, is synonymous with either victory, as made famous by President Nixon and Winston Churchill, or peace, as made famous by hippies.
The “V” Palm In, Knuckles Out
But in many other English-speaking countries, like Great Britain and Australia, the V-sign with the palm facing inward (knuckles out) is an obscene gesture, on par with the middle finger. Though you may simply be signaling the number 2, it is important to remember to face your knuckles toward yourself (palm out).
“Hook ‘Em Horns” or “Devil Horns”
This hand gesture, with the index and pinky fingers raised in the air while the other three are tucked in, was made popular by the University of Texas at Austin, for their Texas Longhorns team. Several other college teams have adopted some variation of the “hook ’em horns” as their slogan, as well.
In rock and heavy metal, the gesture, sometimes called the “corna” or just “horns”, is known to signify that the person is rocking. However, in some European cultures, the same gesture is used as a sign to taunt someone by telling them that their spouse is not being faithful. Similarly, in other European cultures, it is used by various Satanic cults as their gesture, so showing off the horns can get you in trouble.
In 1985, five Americans were arrested as they were dancing in front of the Vatican as they were celebrating a Texas’ Longhorn victory; to observers, they looked like Satanists with balls big enough to dance in front of that most sacred of Catholic sites.
Concha en español means “shell”. It is made by an upthrust palm with the fingers curved in to resemble a shell with the back of the palm pointing the intended recipient. Concha de tu madre (shell of your mother or your mother’s shell) is taken to mean more like “your mother’s twat”. Some people make a similar gesture with the fingers curled in and rubbing together to indicate money or that something is expensive, which is why I included this here.
Children in grade school in many countries may raise their hand in a fashion called the “Moutza” to respectfully ask the teacher to speak. This hand gesture is performed by simply showing one’s hand toward another, palm outward and fingers spread. Many of us may even use it to signify the number 5, or to tell someone to wait.
However, in that country where democracy has its roots, Greece, the moutza is very offensive. In ancient Byzantium, criminals were paraded around town on a donkey, sitting backwards, with their faces smeared with cinder. Cinder in old-timey Greek was called moutzos, which is where the moutza gets its name. To smear the cinder on the criminal’s face, it would have to be applied to the applier’s palm, and then thrust into the criminal’s face. Thus, the gesture became offensive, similar to saying “Eat shit”.
The closer the moutza is made to someone’s face, the more threatening it is considered. Any outward hand gesture in Greece can be deemed offensive, so many Greeks go as far as to wave hello and goodbye inwardly, towards themselves, as if they were fanning themselves.
There is also the “Double Moutza”, which is to extend both hands as moutzas, specifically offensive when slapping the back of one hand with the palm of the other. Don’t use your “Jazz hands” in Greece! Greeks signalling the number 5 would usually face the palm towards themselves, to not cause a stir.
In Panama, the gesture is sometimes interpreted as violent; Using the context of the moutza to mean “wait”, in Panama it can be seen with the implied “you’ll see”, after the “wait”, with the implication of the “you’ll see” being something violent or reprehensible impending. Even in North America it can be offensive; remember the old “talk to the hand”?
The “Throat Slash”
Though this seems like it’s meaning would be hard to express with a positive meaning, there are times when many people, including me, use it to say something that should not be associated with emotions. I’ve used it to tell someone else to stop whatever it is they were doing, and I have used it to tell people not to finish a certain thought that might make someone angry or uncomfortable if vocalized.
In most countries, however, this gesture is only realized in its most obvious ways – the cutting of one’s throat. Try not to use it towards a person who you don’t know, no matter where, as it could be seen as a threat of near-future violence against them.
In Ancient Greece, the fig sign (also called the dulya), made by the hand being closed in a fist but with the thumb in between the index and middle or ring fingers, was a sign of fertility and a wish of good luck towards another. In Portugal and Brazil, the fig has retained its spiritual significance and can be seen by some around their necks as a talisman to ward off evil and bad spirits.
On the other hand, in Turkey and in Slavic societies, as well as some others, it is an obscene gesture, referring sometimes to female genitalia, though often used as a harsh way to deny someone a request, like for assistance or money.
The “Dog Call” or One-Finger Beckon
While the standard, index-finger beckon may have come to be known as a seductive way to lead a sexual partner into another room, or even just to request someone’s presence all the more nearer, in some countries, most notably the Philippines, it is only for use on dogs (though use on prostitutes is commonplace).
Summoning a person in this manner can literally get you arrested in the Pearl of the Orient, and worse yet, you may get your finger broken as a reminder for next time!
Similar to the dog call, which is to summon a person over with only the index finger, the whole-hand beckon attempts to call a person over with the whole hand(palm up, all four fingers swinging back and forth between you and the other person). I have used it myself as a way to say “Gimme that”.
But, universally, this gesture can be seen as an invite to fight someone, sort of like a “bring it on”. Psychologically, using it with that intention tells a person that you await their first/next move before you take physical action, though really you have made that next move just by using this gesture.
Well-known in Chile, the tapita is formed when a circle is made with one hand using all fingers, while the other hand taps the circle while flattened. Tapita literally translates into “small cover”, but is taken in Chile to remind someone that they have small genitals.
If you hold a glass bottle of iced tea upside-down, and bang the bottom with your other hand’s flat palm, this is the tapita, which I have done every time I buy a bottle of tea to shake up the sediment at the bottom (and because it makes a cool popping noise). Probably better to shake it up the regular way in Chile, though, lest someone you are facing not see the bottle.
The “Fishy Smell”
When walking through a fish market in southern Italy, you may hold your nose with your fingers out of habit due to the smell. But, in these parts, holding your nose with two fingers (commonly the index and middle fingers) is used to tell someone that you smell something else fishy, or basically that you don’t trust what they are saying and are calling “bullshit”.
Wiggle your nose from side to side with your two fingers to more emphatically portray your distrust. If you are in a southern Italian fish market, holding your nose can be offensive to the merchant either way, as they may take it that you think they are trying to screw you on the prices, or that their products are not fresh.
Four Fingers Up, Thumb Tucked In
Though you may use this for the number 4, in Japan it is used to call someone an “animal”.
Pinky Finger Up
Holding just the pinky finger up while the rest of the hand remains in a fist has a wide range of meanings in different parts of the world. In South America, this is used as sort of a visual aid when describing something or someone as thin. In Japan, it can be refer to a woman who is involved in some way, though in a vulgar tone, like that she may be a married man’s mistress.
In Indonesia, it can denote that something is bad, while in the Mediterranean region, it can rudely let someone know that you think they have a small penis.
Other Offensive Gestures Somehow, Somewhere
Upside-Down, Empty Glass – In an Australian bar, this is taken to mean that you can win a fight with anybody else in said bar.
Sole of Shoe – In many Middle Eastern countries, the shoe is the lowest point of body, and dirty as well, so showing someone the sole is disrespectful.
Two Men Holding Hands – In places like Saudi Arabia, this is seen as a sign of mutual respect; however, do this is Australia or Texas, or some other more “traditional” area, and it may be seen negatively, as it looks homosexual and many in these parts haven’t opened up their minds yet.
Eating With the Left Hand – In most societies, especially Western ones, it is common to use both hands to eat, like when you eat a burger or use a fork and knife simultaneously. However, in Indian and most Middle Eastern cultures, the cardinal rule of dining is to use only the right hand. The wisdom is, you should use your left hand for “dirty” tasks, such as assisting yourself to depurate in the restroom. Thus, the right hand is the only one fit for putting food in your mouth, even if you are left-handed.
Compliments – In the Western world, guests may try to make small talk by complimenting their host on something they see, such as “what a lovely rug this is!” But in several Arab and African countries, like Jordan and Senegal, it can be quite embarrassing, as the host may feel obligated to give you that exact thing that you just lauded about.
Equally embarrassing and offensive would be to reject the rug once the host offered it to you. So, after dinner, you may be stuck carrying this rug back to your hotel, quite unpleasant for all parties involved.
Giving an Even-Number Amount of Roses
In America and most of western Europe, we tend to buy and sell, and thus give, roses in even numbers, usually by the dozen or half-dozen. But in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Slavic countries such as Russia, giving an even-numbered amount of roses is seen as inviting death. In these places, even-numbers are given primarily at funerals. To be on the safe side, try to always give an odd-numbered amount of roses, as it will also help if a game of “He loves me, he loves me not” follows.
To summarize, any hand gesture that resembles a line, like a finger or arm, can be interpreted as an erect penis somewhere, somehow. Likewise, any gesture that encloses or completes itself, such as the “A-OK”, is going to mean either an asshole or vagina somewhere. Also, any hand sign with the palm not facing towards yourself is bound to get you in trouble somewhere.
Almost everything that we have learned and made habit in the western world is offensive somewhere, even such things as compliments to make small talk and buying a dozen roses for a love interest. Guess we should just stay home so that we don’t accidentally piss someone off, right? Well, if you thought that, you would only be offending yourself. Even the most frequent of travelers may cause a stir with a non-appropriate gesture from time to time.
The best thing to do is to run a quick search online as to what might be offensive in a specific country before you travel, and then remember those. In this increasingly global world, hopefully most of whom you will come across on your journeys will recognize that you did not mean anything offensive by your gesture. Continue traveling, but respectfully 🙂
All images here were created especially for this post by my dear friend and amazing graphic artist Nadia Meziane.
Well, what do you think? Got any more hand gestures or cultural facts to add to our list? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!