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Traditional Gestures Around The World That Mean The Opposite In The US

By Antonia Čirjak January 27 2020

None of us wants to make the first impression of a "stereotype arrogant tourist."
None of us wants to make the first impression of a "stereotype arrogant tourist."

Traveling to a new country, none of us wants to make the first impression of a "stereotype arrogant tourist." Take a few minutes to understand the do's and don'ts of the culture and traditions of the inviting country and enjoy the connections made easier!

Waving Your Hand And Beckoning

Waving our hand from side to side is a common way to greet or say goodbye in many Western countries. In India, it means "come here"; in many East Asian countries, it is considering too showy and impolite. Additionally, in a few Latin American countries or Japan, it might be understood as "no need."

In Laos and some Arabian countries, a gesture that we are used to understanding as "go away" means the opposite - "please come here."

Curling the index finger or four fingers that would mean "come over" in Russia and the US, might be misunderstood in Europe. In the Philippines and East Asia, the same gesture is only used to beckon dogs so it is offensive to use with humans.

The sign that means "stop" in the US should not be used in Greece and Turkey; it would mean "go to hell." 

A 'stop' gesture.
A 'stop' gesture.

A thumb-up is not always an appropriate way to ask for a lift when hitchhiking. "Thumbs up" traditionally means a severe insult in Middle Eastern countries, similar to the middle finger in the US. The sign can be equally offensive in West Africa, Greece, and Sardinia. Just use a loose flat hand with fingers upwards. The same can be useful in China and Morocco.

Counting And Numbers Gestures

In Germany and Austria, a forefinger held up means two instead of one. A thumb up in Japan would mean five. In Russia, "one" is signaled used index finger. In East Slavic countries, the thumb represents number "one." It can be quite funny: imagine if someone asked you whether to give you $20 in two notes, and you show a thumb as "ok!", but in Bulgaria, you are likely to receive a bunch of $1 coins. That is important when ordering food or drinks. 

The "a-ok" gesture with your thumb and index finger from the US would mean "zero" in France and Russia. It is also quite rude in Greece (it seems we really should be careful with fingers gestures there!). 

Nods, Head Toss, Or Side-To-Side: Yes Or No?

In the Philippines, saying "yes" with the head thrown back means "no." In Turkey, shaking your head, it means "say again." What is the most confusing for people from the US and Russia, in many countries the head nodding up and down means "no," and waving the head from side to side means "yes."

In India, saying "no" directly is generally avoided… So here comes the famous Indian head wobble. You get the loose shake with the head that can be "yes," "no," or "not certain" instead of the direct answer. The most common meaning is affirmative; for example, if you ask whether this is the right place to wait for the bus, or if you say "we meet at 7," the wobble would mean 'Ok, understood." Otherwise, it would be best if you watched for the context and subtleties. It can also replace "thank you", which is not typically pronounced in Indian or serve as a recognition or acknowledgment gesture if you see someone familiar at a distance. An enthusiastic and energetic prolonged head shake means yet.

Ok sign
An OK gesture is quite rude in Greece.

A quick and rapid wobble from side to side is "yes." Vague, slower, and subtle, would mean either "not sure" or "maybe, but I am not ready to commit," with the meaning of "no" but polite. 

The tongue click in Balkans, Turkey or Croatia can be annoying if you are not familiar with the context, especially if you are Russian. In Russia, a tongue click means patronizing disapproval. In Balkans, it just means "no" and is nothing to be offended by. It can be accompanied by a head tossed back as a way to say "no," "we do not have it," or "it is not here."

Pointing And Directions

Pointing using an index finger directly at a person is impolite nearly everywhere. In Russia, Europe, and many African countries, it is only appropriate for inanimate objects. In China, Japan, Latin America, and Indonesia, it is very rude.

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