Why is it rude to point?

A man pointing at the person in front of him.
We've long been told pointing is completely off-limits as a means of communication, but in other cultures people actually point more than their fingers.

Is it rude to deliver a magical curse on someone and doom them to a wicked fate? Who knows, but that's exactly how the old "stop pointing" thing started. Folks were none too pleased to think that an outstretched finger might be a sign of a hex [source: Patterson]. If you're of the mind that pointing fingers is a few mumbled words away from turning you into a goose or something, you're probably pretty hardline on the no-pointing rule too.

But not very many of us still subscribe to the idea that our friends in Salem are plotting a demonic custody of our bodies. And besides, the notion that pointing was a precursor to a magic hex is both Western and recent. We know that lots of other cultures -- many quite old -- discourage pointing, at the very least. Some are downright offended by it, but what's the deal?


While in many cultures pointing at someone is considered a bit rude, it's certainly not always considered an obscenity. (American culture, for instance, may frown upon it as a point of manners, but it's absolutely more acceptable than, say, giving someone the finger.) And the truth is, we can't say for sure why it's rude to point, just like we can't quite justify any arbitrary (if still established) rule of etiquette. It could be that it just comes across as aggressive, which no one likes. But there's also the idea that we use pointing to engage in "joint attention," a developmental skill that allows us to share opinions and even activities with others [source: Patterson]. Makes one think that our unwillingness to point is actually quite silly, when it could provide one of our first experiences of community and cooperativeness.

But what to do in those cultures that consider pointing with an index finger untoward? If you're stressed out about the idea of how to motion your way to, say, the bathroom in a pointing-is-rude country, no fear. A lot of cultures that frown on pointing have figured out perfectly reasonable and efficient ways of signaling direction. In Uganda, for instance, those with an armload of something might be relieved to find that pointing with your lips is a common practice. In Guinea-Bissau, some communities use their tongue to point directions [source: CultureGrams].

Just don't think that every culture is pleased to see you point with any spare body part. Thai culture is quite sensitive to feet; pointing with your toes toward a person (or especially religious statues or people) or even food is considered extremely disrespectful [source: Cavanagh]. Wherever you are, don't assume every gesture means the same thing.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Cavanagh, Roy. "Mind Your Feet." Thaizer. April 27, 2012. (March 4, 2015) http://www.thaizer.com/etiquette/mind-your-feet/
  • CultureGrams. "Republic of Guinea-Bissau." ProQuest. 2014. (March 4, 2015) http://www.sjusd.org/leland/teachers/sgillis/geog/africa/culture_gram/Guinea_Bissau.pdf
  • Patterson, Troy. "Point of Etiquette." Slate. Feb. 19, 2014. (March 4, 2015) http://www.slate.com/articles/life/gentleman_scholar/2014/02/is_pointing_rude_yes_but_etiquette_gives_gentlemen_other_options_for_gesturing.html