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Frequent travelers must be great at charades. When you need to communicate and you don’t have the luxury of a shared language, body language is invaluable. A skilled traveler can negotiate a taxi, buy food in a market, and get directions from a stranger through hand motions alone.
Things can get lost in translation, though, when a typical gesture from your country means something completely different in other parts of the world. Below are ten common North American gestures that can cause offense abroad.
In 1992, George Bush visited Australia and, from the window of his limousine, held up his index and middle fingers in the “V” shape, a la Winston Churchill. With the palm facing outward, this V means victory in England, or peace in North America. Too bad Bush gestured with his palm facing inward, the nonverbal equivalent of “up yours.”
We use this gesture in North America to say “stop,” or, if you’re a child of the Jerry Springer era, “talk to the hand.” In Greece, keep your palms to yourself. Holding your palms out towards a person is a highly insulting gesture. This gesture is said to be a remnant of Byzantine times, when people could taunt shackled criminals by smearing their faces with excrement.
This gesture of agreement or approval is an easy reflex when language barriers are at play. Try to avoid it in Thailand, though, where it’s a sign of condemnation. It’s typically a child’s gesture, the Thai equivalent of sticking out your tongue. People will likely be more bemused than hurt if you slip up. Still, it’s a good one to avoid.
Curling your index finger to say “come here” is a no-no in many Asian countries. In the Philippines, this gesture is only used for dogs. To use it with a person is derogatory; suggesting that you see them as a subservient inferior. Hardly a good way to make a first impression when signaling a waiter or shop clerk.
An open-palmed pat on the head of a child is a gesture of fondness in North America. If you need to get a child’s attention, it’s also the easiest place to tap them. In the Buddhist faith, though, the top of the head is the highest point of the body, and its where the spirit exists. To touch the top of a person’s head is highly invasive, for children and adults alike. Avoid this in any country with a predominant Buddhist population.
Making a circle with your thumb and forefinger means “great” or “fine” in North America. It’s also used by scuba divers to communicate that there are no problems. In France, however, this gesture means “zero.” Unless you’re motioning to a French scuba diver, you might be accidentally communicating that something (or someone) is worthless. A bad idea when trying to compliment a chef on your meal.
A first with the thumb tucked under the index finger doesn’t have a set North American meaning, except when playing “got your nose” with a child. It also means the letter “T” in American Sign Language. In Turkey, this gesture is aggressively rude; the middle-finger equivalent. Expect harsh reactions from the parents if you “steal the nose” of a Turkish child.
In the West, people aren’t especially mindful of their hands when they offer objects to others. In Japan, though, it is polite and expected for people to make offerings with both hands. If you give someone a business card, or hand them your camera to take a photo, be sure to pass on the item with both hands. This shows that you are fully attentive and sincere in the offering. A one-handed presentation might be taken as dismissive.
Many western cultures make this gesture when wishing for good luck. A hand with the index and middle fingers crossed is even the logo for the UK’s National Lottery. In Vietnam, however, this is an obscene gesture, especially when done while looking at or addressing another person. The crossed fingers are said to resemble female genitals.
North Americans raise their index and pinkie fingers like bull horns when they want to rock and roll all night… or cheer on a sports team with a name like “Cowboys” or “Longhorns.” In Italy, think twice before making this motion, especially when standing right behind a man. There, this “cuckold” gesture means that a man’s wife is being unfaithful, and he is a fool because of it. Incidentally, this gesture is quite common at Italian sports matches too, though its usually put to use after a referee’s bad call.