The Meanings of Gestures around the World

In today’s world, nearly all company is global business, and you do not have to go far to encounter another culture. You might, for instance, travel abroad to learn about a new product; your company might merge with an international company that is headquartered overseas; or you may find yourself hosting international guests as part of a huge company deal.

Whatever the situation, you need to be aware of gestures. The gestures that we use as Americans are not universal. Some of them can originate the wrong impression or be offensive to others. Using the wrong gesture could get you into trouble and affect your company deals. Be particularly aware of these gestures:

The “thumbs up” sign – In America the gesture indicates “a-okay.” Yet it is carefully rude in Australia, Iran and some other Muslim countries. It translates to “up yours.”

The “Ok” sign – Often used in America to mean approval, it is carefully vulgar and obscene in Brazil, southern Italy, Germany and Greece. In Japan, this gesture signifies money. In southern France it is used to carry that something is worthless.

The pointed index finger – A pointed index finger is used to emphasize a point in American culture. However, it is impolite in the Middle East, Russia and Asia. Rather than pointing with a finger, point with an open palm instead.

The victory sign – With the index finger and middle finger raised to form a V, this gesture is a coarse signal in America. It means victory or peace. Be faithful about using it in Britain, however. If the palm is facing toward you, the gesture is carefully obscene.

Two fingers crossed – Often viewed as a sign of wishing person good luck in Europe and the United States, it is carefully offensive in Paraguay.

Shaking your head from side to side – In the U.S., shaking one’s head from side to side means “no.” In Bulgaria the same gesture means “yes”; interesting the head up and down translates to “no”!

The hook ’em horns – This gesture is made by raising the index and pinky fingers while curling the other fingers into the palm. It is a coarse gesture in Texas to cheer on a sports team. In Brazil it is used to wish person good luck. In Africa, it is carefully a curse.

The beckoning gesture – This gesture is formed by curling and uncurling the index finger. It is coarse in most countries and means “come here.” However, the gesture is offensive to Mexicans, Filipinos and the Vietnamese.

Snapping your fingers – Some might use this gesture to get someone’s attention. In France and Belgium it sends a vulgar message. You would never snap your fingers to get a waiter’s attention.

Hands in the pockets – This is generally seen in the United States. In Finland, Sweden, France, Belgium, Indonesia and Japan, putting your hands in your pockets would be carefully impolite in a company meeting.

The meaning of gestures is not universal. Use these tips to prevent a cultural faux pas. When in doubt, the best advice would be to “keep your hands to yourself.”

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