Body language, like spoken language, is completely arbitrary; the most insulting gesture in one country might be perfectly harmless — or even meaningless — in another. That’s where tourists get into trouble. Here are a few hand signals that, while innocuous to Americans, carry much more offensive connotations in other parts of the world.
When one makes a circle with their thumb and index finger and keeps the remaining three digits extended, Americans know all is well. But in Greece or Turkey, this gesture can get you in a lot of trouble because of its resemblance to a certain part of the anatomy shared by males and females. The implication of the signal is that the recipient is a homosexual — not, say, that the cable bill has been paid or the boss approved your proposal. And in those two countries, a bold statement like this is likely to incur the wrath of macho locals.
The ‘Thumbs Up’
This universal sign of approval actually isn’t universal at all. In fact, extending one’s thumb to the sky is considered pretty rude throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Latin America, because it implies the recipient can take whatever he/she is discussing at the time and swiftly deposit it in their posterior cavity. So while you think you’re expressing satisfaction during a conversation or business transaction, you’re essentially telling the other person to shove it. Try nodding instead — it gets the same point across without all the perceived vulgarity.
In the U.S., an extended index finger and pinky denotes one who is currently rocking out, or planning to do so in the near future. It has also come to symbolize fanship of the University of Texas Longhorns However, this gesture implies something quite different in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Colombia, as well as some of the Baltic States. Known as the corna, the signal is used to discreetly inform a man that his wife is adulterous.
The ‘Thumb Bite’
If you’re inclined toward oral fixations, you may want to tackle your Freudian habit before making a trek to India or Pakistan. In those two countries, placing a thumb in or around your mouth strongly resembles a gesture known as the cutis, which effectively tells the recipient that his/her entire family is worthless. You’ve just deeply insulted a perfect stranger, and didn’t even realize you were doing it. Way to go, jackass!
Extending one’s forefinger and beckoning to someone might be perceived as rude in a lot of places, but in Singapore, the gesture has a much more sinister connotation — namely, that the recipient is about to die because Death is coming for them. In other words, not the best way of convincing someone to approach you. In other Asian countries, such as Japan and Malaysia, the signal isn’t malicious, but is considered somewhat rude. And in the Philippines, beckoning is reserved for dogs — and those who summon other people this way may face criminal charges. Instead, extend the arm, point your hand toward the floor and make a scratching motion; this gesture can be used throughout East Asia as a safe alternative to the standard beckon.
The ‘Peace Sign’
Whether you’re saying ‘peace out’ or ‘peace, my brother’, the extended index and middle finger gesture is pretty innocuous throughout the United States. However, in other English-speaking countries — namely Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand — the ‘V’ symbolizes a certain aspect of the female anatomy that begins with that letter, as long as the back of the gesturer’s hand is facing the recipient. Palms out, on the other hand, respresents ‘victory’ and dates back to the Churchill era.
The ‘Got Your Nose!’
Remember that old prank your uncles and aunts performed when you were a baby? Well, when one’s thumb protrudes between the index and middle finger in Italy, the implication isn’t, ‘got your nose’, but rather, ‘got your vulva’. We’ll let you consult a textbook if you’re wondering what the thumb symbolizes in that context. This might seem crude but not necessarily insulting, except that ‘the fig’, as it’s now known, has come to express derision in Italy, as well as Turkey and India; think of it as the equivalent of a good ol’ fashioned American middle finger. Of course, it should also be noted that this gesture represents the letter ‘T’ in American Sign Language.
By Brad Nehring