Talk to the Hand: Global Body Language No-Nos

Last Updated Nov 3, 2009 8:04 AM EST



We don't think much about it do we? A quick thumbs up to someone means 'it's fine'. Well, it does here, but what does it mean in Latin American countries or to west Africans, Sardinians or Greeks?

In the Middle East, a Fonzi-style double thumbs up would be considered to be one of the greatest insults. Rather more charmingly, the Germans and the Japanese see it as a 'No.1' gesture. Ahhh.

With this in mind, Iust thought I'd give you a heads up on some of the most common mistakes that can be taken as seriously rude, or sexual in nature.


  • That doesn't mean peace: US politicians have been known to copy the V-sign that Winston Churchill made so popular, but if they turn the back of their hands to the audience, Britons will take offence. (The sign is distinctly British and stories as to its origins vary. One is that when the French threatened to cut off the fingers of the British Longbow archers, and only a few Britons went on to defeat the French at the Battle of Agincourt, the British waved their two fingers at the retreating French.)
  • Definitely not OK: If you're feeling masochistic, give what we understand as an 'OK' sign in South America. But if you join forefinger and thumb to form an 'O' in Rio, you'd be representing something quite different -- and putting your life on the line.
  • Stop! That 'talk to the hand' gesture is dismissive in the US, but opening your palm downwards towards your opposite number and stretching out your fingers is extremely offensive in Greece. It is called a 'moutza' there, but various versions of it are also deeply insulting in Japan, the Korea, Pakistan and several regions in Africa.
  • Friend or Fido? A beckoning gesture with the forefinger is a real no-no in the Philippines, where it is interpreted as calling a dog. Not only can you be imprisoned for this, but they will break your finger to stop you doing it again.
  • Sole of indiscretion: If you cross your legs and show the soles of your shoes to your host in an Asian or Middle East location, you have just shown him huge disrespect. Remember the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at George W. Bush?
  • Plate expectations: If you down an entire glass of saki and clean your plate in Japan, you're stating that you are still hungry -- and you will be served more, regardless of cost. So leave a little bit on your plate and in your glass and you won't have to eat or drink any more. This is difficult when most westerners have been taught to clear their plate to be polite.
  • The final frontier: Be aware of personal space. Closer than 18 inches could be perceived as standing in someone's intimate space in so-called 'arm's length cultures'. Only invitees can go there.
Any more tricky gestures to avoid in a particular country? Share your views below.

(Image: Effervescing Elephant, CC2.0)