5 Hand Gestures to Avoid While Traveling

thumbs up

[robynleigh] / [iSock] / Thinkstock

Pantomiming and gesturing becomes an integral part of traveling when you don’t speak the language.You begin relying on your hands to communicate the things that your mouth is unable to pronounce. For the most part, this real life game of charades is heartwarming, hilarious, and entertaining. Unfortunately, the lack of a universal set of hand gestures can sometimes lead to offensive miscommunications or, worse, jail. Here are five hand gestures that can get you in hot water overseas.

Thumbs Up
What you think you’re saying: Awesome
What you’re actually saying: Up yours.

This gesture, made by closing the fist and keeping the thumb extended upwards generally means “sounds good” or “good work.” Unless you happen to be in Iran. In certain Middle Eastern and African countries, this gesture is the equivalent of flipping the bird.

Peace Sign With Palm Facing Toward You
What you think you’re saying: Peace, man.
What you’re actually saying: F*@! you.

With one flip of the wrist, you can go from sending peaceful vibes to telling someone to f*@! off. Though this insult is mostly used in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, it’s probably best just to avoid making a “V” with your fingers unless your palm is facing out.

The OK Sign
What you think you’re saying: That sounds, great! Perfect!
What you’re actually saying: You’re an asshole.

The OK Sign, made by connecting the thumb and the forefinger in to an “o” shape, has varying meanings around the world. In the U.S. and Australia, it means “okay.” In many Middle Eastern countries it’s viewed as a threatening sign while in Turkey it’s used in a derogatory way to refer to someone as homosexual. In Mexico it can be used to call someone a coward and in Brazil it’s the equivalent of the middle finger.

What you think you’re saying: Talk to the hand.
What you’re actually saying: I’m going to smear [insert swear word] all over your face.

Made by extending one or both hands with the palm facing the other person, this insult is a serious offense in Greece. Originating from an old penal code where criminals were made to ride around town with cinder smeared on their face, this gesture is about as offensive as it gets. Avoid at all costs.

Sign of the Horns
What you think you’re saying: Rock on, dude
What you’re actually saying: Your wife is cheating on you.

This gesture, made by sticking out the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb, can be used to ward off evil or tell someone to rock on. It can also be used, in Italy for example, to signal that someone has an unfaithful partner.

For more hand gestures to avoid, check out Roger E. Axtell’s book Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World.

By Nikki Hodgson