Hand gestures in different cultures

Hand gestures in different cultures may imply different meanings. It is therefore very important to understand the meaning of hand gestures in different cultures, if you happen to travel or meet people around the world. The following article will cover some information related to the hand gestures in different cultures.

Many times we tend to use hand gestures to explain our needs and thoughts. The same hand gesture may mean something quite nasty and offensive to a person from a different cultural background. Hand gestures are a very important part of the body language gestures.

What are Hand Gestures?

Hand gestures are a way of communicating with others and conveying your feelings. The meanings of hand gestures in different cultures may translate into different things. To explain my point, I take a very common example of former US President George W. Bush who had to face a major faux pas during a visit to Australia. He tried to signal a peace sign by waving the two fingers, or V- sign, at the crowd. You may think of this as a simple gesture, but he committed a major error. Instead of his palm facing outwards, it faced inwards. The meaning of this hand gesture in Australia meant he was asking the crowd to go screw themselves! A grave error committed by the then most powerful man in the world. Therefore, it is very important to understand the meanings of hand gestures in different cultures before you travel to different countries. You can read more on How to Read Body Language.

Before you communicate with people in different cultures, you need to understand the meaning of gestures. Those considered as good hand gestures in different cultures may be termed offensive in some countries. So, if you are a frequent flyer to different countries, improve your communication skills by learning the meaning of hand gestures in different cultures. The following paragraphs contain some information related to the meanings of common hand gestures in different cultures.

Meanings of Hand Gestures in Different Cultures

The following table will cover some of the common hand gestures in different cultures with their meanings. You will be surprised to know that some hand gestures that you perform almost casually have a really different meaning in other cultures.

1. Thumbs-Up Hand Sign


The thumbs up sign in most American and European cultures means things are going according to your plans or something you approve of. However, this going-good sign translates into a rude and offensive gesture in Islamic and Asian countries. In Australia, it means OK, but if you move it up and down, it is considered as a grave insult.

 2. Thumbs-Down Hand Sign


The thumbs-down sign obviously means the opposite of a thumbs-up sign. It is an indication of something that is bad or something that you do not approve of. It also indicates that something or someone has failed. The thumbs-down sign is not used as often as the thumbs up sign. This is a rude hand gesture and an arrogant way to indicate failure.

 3. Fingers crossed hand gesture


Crossing of fingers like this is considered a sign of wishing for good luck or fortune. It also may interpret that someone is hoping for something good to happen. The cross may have originated from the pagan symbols that mean to ward off evil. Many times people cross their fingers before telling a lie, as it is believed to countervail the evil that comes of the lie. It is both a positive and a negative symbol as it interprets both luck and lies.

 4. Stop


When one raises the hand up with the palm facing towards the opposite person, it means ‘stop’ in British and American societies. In a stop sign, the hand is tilted forward. This means the person is in an authoritative figure and asking one to ‘Stop’. If the fingers are pushing down, it will indicate that the gesture is indicated for the person to sit down or settle. This is not a defensive hand gesture and is in fact a gesture to take control over the person it is intended for. If you were to use this sign in Singapore or Malaysia, it would mean that one is trying to ‘hail’ someone’s attention like a waiter or asking for permission to speak.

 5. That’s Enough Hand Gesture


There is one common meaning of this hand gesture in different cultures. This hand gesture is commonly used by mothers and teachers. This hand gesture is used to warn a single individual. It is a way to silent an individual and ask them to pay attention. This is considered a rude gesture in a professional environment and termed a domineering behaviour.

 6. The Moutza


While talking to a friend, you may open your palm and stretch out your fingers. But, if you were in Greece, the same gesture would be considered as a traditional manual insult. It means that you are thrusting your hand in the face of the opposite person and using a brash ‘na’. This suggests that you are asking the person to ‘eat shit’ and leave you alone. The Moutza in American terms is similar to the hand gesture that means ‘talk to the hand’.

 7. The Dog Call Hand Sign


The dog call is a gesture where you curl your finger and summon someone towards you. This movement is mostly seen carried out by a tempting woman to her man. However, do not use this seductive hand gesture in the Philippines. This is because it is one of the worst forms of hand gesture that is to be used only for dogs. This hand gesture could get you arrested in the Philippines or maybe even punishable by breaking your finger, so that you never ever attempt to try it again. In Asian countries like Japan, the dog call is considered a rude gesture. In Singapore, it is indicative of death.

 8. O.K


The Okay or A-OK or O.K sign is mostly considered one of the good hand gestures in different countries. The hand gesture is used by curling the index finger just over the thumb and the remaining fingers extended above them. This means that everything is good, well or OK. Also, this sign is usually used by [underwater] divers to indicate that all is well or OK since the thumbs up sign already means “I’m going up” or “ascending”. However, in Latin America and France it is considered as an insulting sign as it is thought to mean ‘your anus’ and has negative connotations attached to it. In Australia, it means zero and in Germany it may mean a job well done or an offensive insult depending on the region you visit. In New Zealand, this sign is not used much and considered a cheap way of saying OK. In Turkey, this OK sign means one is a homosexual.

 9. Finger Snap Hand Gesture


Snapping fingers over and over again may mean one is trying to remember something one has forgotten. In Latin America, snapping fingers means asking one to hurry up. In Great Britain and America, one snaps fingers when one remembers something or gets an idea. However, in many cultures, snapping fingers close to someone’s face is considered to be an offensive gesture. Here in Nigeria, for example, this is a sign of a threat or “I’ll deal with you”.

 10. I’m Running Out Of Time


Many times when one is getting late or wants to indicate running out of time, they tend to watch their wrist. This is despite the fact that they may or may not be wearing a watch on the wrist. This is a subconscious gesture to indicate an end of conversation or a subtle way that one should take leave. However, do not attempt this gesture in Middle Eastern countries. It is believed that once a conversation starts, it should be allowed to take its time to complete. Gesturing to end the conversation is considered a rude insult.

 11. Pointing Finger Hand Sign


In America and European cultures, it is considered rude to point fingers at others. This hand gesture is an indication of a dominant to subordinate behaviour in the professional world. It is considered a gesture to single out an individual from a crowd. This aggressive signal is not liked by many, as no one likes to be singled out.

 12. The Corona


The corona is a hand gesture that is carried out by pointing the index and the little fingers upwards and the two middle fingers and thumb curled tightly into the palm. This hand gesture is considered as the symbol of the devil in many cultures. The two pointing fingers represent the horns of the devil. This symbol is used in the University of Texas to symbolise ‘the Longhorn’—their university mascot. The corona is also widely used by rock stars in as a positive hand gesture. This is also one of the good hand gestures in different cultures like Buddhism and Hinduism. This gesture means the Karana Mudra that is used to dispel the evil. In the Mediterranean, it is an old symbol that means ‘cuckold’, that is, ‘your wife is cheating on you’.

 13. The Fig Hand Sign


The fig is a gesture that is indicated by a fist. The thumb is seen poking from underneath the index finger and over the middle finger. This gesture is known as ‘mano fico’ or ‘fig hand’ in Roman. This is one of the good hand gestures in different cultures, as it indicates good luck and fertility and a way to ward off the evil eye. However, the fig is considered a gesture that mimics the female vulva in Italian. Thus, this is a very offensive gesture to the Italians and Turks. If this gesture is carried out by a person of Asian origin, it roughly translates as ‘screw you’. You can read more on Italian Hand Gestures.

 14. Clenched Fist


One of the aggressive hand gestures is the clenched fist. This means one is trying to pick up a fight or trying to warn the opposite person to back off. In some militant groups, a clenched fist is used as a sign of defiance. In many Asian countries, this is a daring and hard-to-resist invitation to trouble—a clenched fist will surely land you into a fight.

 15. The Finger Hand Sign


Perhaps, the most offensive and rude hand gesture around the world is the finger. The middle finger pointing upwards is considered an obscene gesture. In some Mediterranean and Arab countries, holding the index finger instead of the middle finger implies the same obscene gesture. You can read more on Hand Gestures and Their Meanings.

Those were some information relating to the meanings of hand gestures in different cultures. You should avoid using certain hand gestures in countries whose cultures are new to you. You do not want to offend anyone or anything in a new land that may ‘land you in soup’. While you research information related to travel tips, be sure you also learn something about their body language and gestures, too. You do not want to inadvertently insult your guests or embarrass your hosts or trigger  unwarranted violence in a foreign land.

If you are in Nigeria and would like actual training to become a more effective communicator, LiveSpeech offers powerful coaching programmes that can get you speaking and presenting like a Pro! See full details of training courses at the LiveSpeech main site here: www.LiveSpeech.org.


Batul Nafisa Baxamusa also contributed to this article


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