Worried about your upcoming trip abroad because you don't speak the native language? That's probably the least of your problems. Words comprise but a mere 7 to 35 percent of human communication. The rest comes via body language: gestures, posture, facial expressions, proximity and touch [source: Expats Moving and Relocation Guide]. What you should be thinking about are local hand gestures, especially if you're someone who can't speak without animatedly flinging your hands and arms about.
Many hand gestures that are innocuous or positive in one country can be incredibly insulting or obscene in another. To make things more difficult, a gesture's meaning can also differ within a country, depending upon the locale. It may also have a particular meaning only to one subset of people, such as gays or the elderly, no matter where in the country you are.
You could think keeping your hands in your pockets will solve the problem. But that's considered offensive in places, such as France, Japan and Sweden [source: The New York Times]. Maybe you can keep your arms crossed over your chest? Nope. That's a sign of arrogance in Finland, for one [sources: Forbes].
What to do? Before you finish packing your bags, familiarize yourself with the following 10 hand gestures. Some are considered very positive in the U.S., but all are deemed insulting in at least one spot around the globe.
The Middle Finger
The most offensive gesture in America is flipping someone off. Shooting the bird. Giving them "the finger." The gesture means screw you. Bug off. Or, to be more blunt, f*** you. The gesture involves sticking up your middle finger with your palm facing in. You can make the sign calmly, or angrily extend your arm toward the intended recipient, depending on how upset you are.
In the past, the gesture was a bit shocking to see. Not so much anymore. A news database search reported by NPR noted the phrase "giving the finger" was used three times more from 2000 to 2010 than it was between 1990 and 2000. And as anyone living in America knows, you'll see an impressive (dismaying?) assortment of people using it, from prominent politicians to movie stars [source: Weeks]. If this keeps up, "the finger" may no longer be seen as shocking and crude. Which likely means another gesture will take its place as most offensive.
"The finger," incidentally, is largely understood and used throughout the Western world, even though other countries might have their own preferred gestures to impart the same meaning [source: Language Trainers].
Is everything all right? In America, you might respond to such a question by flashing the "A-OK" sign, created by touching your forefinger to your thumb and pointing the remaining three fingers straight up. While the origins of the action are unclear, it appears the symbol is an attempt to create a crude "o" and "k" (the "o" is certainly clear, though not so much the "k"). This gesture is also widely used in the diving world to both ask if a diver is fine, and for the diver to respond back that she is [source: Mezcua].
Don't make this gesture in Brazil, however, where it's akin to giving someone the finger. In Greece and Turkey, it's also seen as quite vulgar, and insinuates the person to whom it's given is a homosexual. In some Middle Eastern countries, the "A-OK" is the symbol for the "evil eye" [sources: Busch, Kruschewsky].
Perhaps the worst misuse of this sign in recent history was committed by then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1950s. The VP emerged from his plane in Brazil, made an "A-OK" sign with each hand, and enthusiastically wagged them to the assembled crowd. Not surprisingly, the people were astounded and infuriated at this double insult [source: Thomson].
The Chin Flick
Among all of the possible hand gestures that can be misinterpreted around the world, the chin flick may be the least confusing. So if you have a habit of flicking your chin while you talk, don't sweat it too much. In much of Italy, people will make the gesture — which involves placing the fingertips of one hand under your chin, pointing at your neck, then flicking them out towards the person with whom you're speaking — to indicate they couldn't care less (about you, what you're saying, your dog, the scrape on your pinkie). Frankly, my dear, they just don't give a damn. It can also mean they're positively not willing to do something [source: Marchetti].
In Northern Italy, France, Belgium and Tunisia, the chin flick can be used to tell someone to get lost (in a little bit more aggressive language than this) [source: Heddleston]. And speaking of aggressive, if someone wants to be quite emphatic about their intended message, they will make the gesture quite forcefully.
It's such a fun game to play with babies and tots. "I've got your nose!" you say playfully, after you've made a gentle swipe. To prove you've really snatched their proboscis, you hold up your hand, curled in a fist, with your thumb sticking up in between your pointer and middle finger. Your thumb, of course, is supposedly the baby's nose. Alas, while this game is common in the U.S., Australia and Canada, it's never played in Turkey. In that country, the hand gesture, commonly known as "the fig," is like calling someone an unprintable name [source: Peters]. It's also quite insulting to people in Indonesia, Italy, India, China and Russia [sources: Language Trainers, Link].
This gesture hails back to ancient times, when the Romans used it to indicate sexual union. In a positive manner, that is — to wish someone good luck and fertility. It also was seen as a protective measure against the evil eye. The Romans called the gesture mano fico, or fig hand, as they felt the thumb-in-fist looked like a woman's private parts. "Fica" is Italian for fig, and also slang for vulva; Romans equated figs with female fertility [source: Symbol Dictionary]. Interestingly, the gesture is also the same used for the letter T in American Sign Language [source: Language Trainers]. Oops.
The Horn Fingers
Harley Clark had no idea what he was doing when, as head cheerleader at the University of Texas at Austin, he introduced a hand gesture to his fellow students at a rally. Clark said the new gesture was now the official sign for the Texas Longhorns football team, to be used whenever they played. The sign, made by raising the index and pinkie fingers while holding the rest down, was thought up by a classmate, and was supposed to resemble the school's horned mascot. After the rally, Clark was chewed out by an administrator, who said he had no authority to make such a proclamation. Besides, the gesture had a terrible meaning in Italy [source: Nicar].
But the "Hook 'em Horns" sign was immediately embraced by Longhorns fans, and a decade later by American rockers, who used it to encourage fans to party on. Not a big deal in America, of course, but in countries such as Italy and Spain, as well as in Brazil, Colombia and some Baltic nations, the sign (known as a corna or cornuto) is an offensive gesture letting a man that, "Hey, your wife's a whore." The "bull horn" insult dates back at least 2,500 years — bulls used to be castrated to make them calmer [source: Telegraph].
The gesture is also used as a satanic salute. This became problematic for President George W. Bush when, in 2005, he flashed the Hook 'em Horns sign at his second inauguration. Some Nordic newspapers proclaimed he was hailing Satan [source: Link]. In 1985, use of the gesture also caused five Americans to be arrested. The group, visiting Italy, was celebrating a major Longhorns victory by dancing with "devil horns" near the Vatican [source: Google Books].
The Crossed Fingers
When you want to wish someone good luck, you'll often tell them, "I'll keep my fingers crossed" that they get the promotion, are pregnant or win the lottery. The gesture is made by crossing your middle finger over your pointer. If you really, really want to wish someone good luck, you might tell them you'll cross all of your fingers and your toes, too. That is, if you live in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. or Australia.
If you happen to be a resident of Vietnam, however, you'll view crossed fingers as a vulgar symbol for female genitalia. Even worse is if another person crosses his fingers just for (or at) you. Then, it's an especially shocking and horrid offense [source: Kruschewsky].
Crossed fingers are an ancient European superstition. Originally, the person locked fingers with another to form a cross (an X, like the Scottish cross of St. Andrew) and wish good luck. Later, the custom devolved to just one person crossing his or her fingers. And now most of the time we don't even cross fingers, but just say we will [source: Panati].
The Outward Hand
"Talk to the hand. ('Cause the face ain't listening.)" This popular American phrase began in the 1990s, and was accompanied by a gesture — thrusting out your hand toward another, with fingers spread and the palm out. While only mildly rude in the U.S., the gesture is very nasty and even confrontational in other lands.
It's most popularly associated with Greece, where it's called the moutza. Those who give the moutza often accompany the gesture by saying, "Na!" which means, "Here you go!" Supposedly the gesture has its roots in ancient Byzantium, where people shamed criminals by scooping up cinders (moutzos) in their hands and then rubbing them on the offenders' faces. Some say dirt or feces also were used. In addition to Greece, the gesture is unwelcome in parts of Africa and in Pakistan.
While the Japanese don't employ the moutza, they have a very similar gesture with the thumb tucked in. Incidentally, the moutza's basic meaning is an aggressive, "To hell with you!" or something stronger [sources: Language Trainers, Link, Heddleston].
The Forearm Jerk
When you think of it, Americans' use of "the finger" to deeply degrade someone is a pretty small, meek hand gesture, considering the hefty insult it's supposed to convey. The European forearm jerk, in contrast, is a much meatier gesture.
First you take your right hand and make a tight fist. Then you jerk your right forearm up as you slap the bicep forcefully with your left hand. Southern European males, including those in France, who call it the bras d'honneur, use the forearm jerk as a crude, phallic way to flip someone the bird. It can also indicate sentiments such as, "I'm better than you are," "Get lost, loser!" or "Up yours, buddy!" In Brazil, the gesture is known as the banana, although its meaning is the same. Men in Britain and Germany sometimes make the forearm jerk as a rude way of indicating they're lusting after a particular woman, although they'd never make the gesture at the woman [sources: Kruschewsky, Steves].
Of all the hand gestures discussed thus far, the cutis seems the silliest. Of course, that's just to Western sensibilities. Primarily used in India and Pakistan, the hand sign is made by putting the tip of your thumb in your mouth with the rest of your fingers standing straight up. (Some people do it with the fingers curled in.) Once you make the gesture, you flick your thumb out of your mouth while crying out, "Cutta!" ("Screw you!") This gesture is not only an insult to you, but to your entire family — sort of like saying you and your family all suck — hence its severity.
One of the more notable uses of the cutis was by Shoaib Akhtar, considered the fastest bowler in cricket history. Akhtar gave the cutis in Melbourne during a rain delay in the 2004 test series against Australia [sources: Heddleston, Language Trainers].
Thumbs down on the thumbs-up sign when you're traveling. This seemingly-innocuous gesture that means, "Great! I like it! All right!" in the U.S. has pretty awful meanings elsewhere. In the Middle East, for example, it means up your butt, fella. (Or worse.) Many, if not most, Latin Americans find it offensive, as do citizens of West Africa, Greece, Russia, Sardinia, the south of Italy, Australia, the Philippines and many Islamic nations. Phew! That's a lot of thumbs-up haters.
The gesture may have been popularized during World War II, when American pilots flashed the sign to their grounds crews to indicate they were good to go. But scholars believe it actually originated in ancient Rome when crowds used the "thumbs-up" sign to mean a gladiator should be speared or hid their thumbs if he should be spared. (Notice the negative meaning?) If you simply can't stop using this sign, know that you'll be all right in Germany and certain areas of Japan, where the thumbs-up sign simply indicates the number one [source: Koerner].
HowStuffWorks explores why the rise of Franglais has the guardians of the French language tres worried.
Author's Note: 10 Obscene Hand Gestures From Around the World
Note to self: Don't make any hand gestures when you travel. That's the best way to make sure you stay out of trouble.
More Great Links
- Astri-O'Reilly, Ana. "Hand gestures from around the world." Pocket Cultures. Sept. 14, 2011. (June 1, 2015) http://pocketcultures.com/2011/09/14/hand-gestures-different-cultures/
- Busch, Simon. "Innocent gestures that mean rude things abroad." NineMSN. (June 1, 2015) http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/world/rudegestures/835248/innocent-gestures-that-mean-rude-things-abroad
- Clark, Dave. "Tacaño ~ Spanish Gesture." e Learn Spanish Language. (June 5, 2015) http://www.elearnspanishlanguage.com/articles/gesture-tacano.html
- Expats Moving and Relocation Guide. "How to Use Effectively Nonverbal Communication When Relocating Overseas." (June 3, 2015) http://www.expats-moving-and-relocation-guide.com/nonverbal-communication.html/#sthash.UArdSsdz.dpbs
- Forbes, Sophie. "18 gestures that can get you into trouble outside the U.S." Yahoo Travel. March 24, 2015. (June 1, 2015) http://news.yahoo.com/18-gestures-that-can-cause-offense-around-the-world-232750431.html
- Google Books. "The Definitive Book of Body Language." (June 5, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=z5d_8bAyW8AC&pg=PA123&lpg=PA123&dq=americans+arrested+vatican+longhorns+sign&source=bl&ots=JLN1kB8JXA&sig=VgTN5A9cxcEgIfLbQICq1gynIgM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=GQdyVfDLFsaBygTk3oCoBg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=americans%20arrested%20vatican%20longhorns%20sign&f=false
- Heddleston, Sara. "These 10 Gestures May Seem Innocent. But Do Them In The Wrong Place And You'll Get Punched In The Nose." Viralnova. March 9, 2014. (June 1, 2015) http://www.viralnova.com/rude-hand-gestures/
- Huffington Post. "The Guide to Hand Gestures Around the World." March 17, 2014. (June 1, 2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/17/the-global-guide-to-hand-_n_4956860.html
- Koerner, Brendan. "What Does a 'Thumbs Up' Mean in Iraq?" Slate. March 28, 2003. (June 17, 2015) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2003/03/what_does_a_thumbs_up_mean_in_iraq.html
- Kruschewsky, Gabriela. "19 Simple Gestures That Might Be Highly Misunderstood Abroad." BuzzFeed. Oct. 15, 2013. (June 1, 2015) http://www.buzzfeed.com/gabrielakruschewsky/simple-gestures-that-might-be-highly-misunderstood-abroad#.alGbaGG89W
- Language Trainers. "The Top 10 Hand Gestures You'd Better Get Right." Sept. 24, 2007. (June 5, 2015) https://www.languagetrainers.co.uk/blog/2007/09/24/top-10-hand-gestures/
- Link, Matthew. "Dangerous Body Language Abroad." Aol Travel. July 26, 2010. (June 5, 2015) http://news.travel.aol.com/2010/07/26/dangerous-body-language-abroad/
- Marchetti, Silvia. "Italian hand gestures everyone should know." CNN. May 29, 2015. (June 1, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/29/travel/experts-guide-to-italian-hand-gestures/
- Mezcua, Jorge. "Diving signs you need to know." For Divers. Sept. 12, 2013. (June 3, 2015) http://www.fordivers.com/en/blog/2013/09/12/senales-de-buceo-que-tienes-que-conocer/
- Mughal, Khabir Uddin. "Top 10 Fastest Bowlers in the History of Cricket." Sporteology. March 17, 2015. (June 5, 2015) http://sporteology.com/top-10-fastest-bowlers-in-the-history-of-cricket/
- Nicar, Jim. "The Hook 'em Horns Hand Sign." Texas Exes. (June 5, 2015) https://www.texasexes.org/uthistory/traditions.aspx?tradition=hookem
- Peters, Harry. "Rude Hand Gestures from Around the World." Visually. (June 1, 2015) http://visual.ly/rude-hand-gestures-around-world
- Steves, Rick. "Understanding European Gestures." Rick Steves. (June 6, 2015) https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/sightseeing/european-gestures
- Symbol Dictionary. "Mano Fico (Fig Gesture)." (June 5, 2015) http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1422
- Telegraph. "Rude hand gestures of the world." Telegraph. (June 5, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/picturegalleries/8788932/Rude-hand-gestures-of-the-world.html?image=8
- The New York Times. "What's A-O.K. in the U.S.A. Is Lewd and Worthless Beyond." Aug. 18, 1996. (June 1, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/18/weekinreview/what-s-a-ok-in-the-usa-is-lewd-and-worthless-beyond.html
- Weeks, Linton. "Is 'Giving The Finger' Getting Out Of Hand?" National Public Radio. Aug. 26, 2010. (June 3, 2015) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129400312