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Meaning of Gestures in Different Cultures ... Complimentary or Offensive?

Updated on February 21, 2015

In a foreign country, a man visited a local restaurant. He didn’t speak their language. He ordered something indecipherable off the menu. When the waiter brought him a plate of delicious looking fried noodles, he smiled and made an OK sign at the waiter with his thumb and forefinger linked in a circle. Looking angry, the waiter then picked up the dish and thrown it to his lap. What he did wrong, he wondered. Well, nothing is quite as it seems when it comes to using hand gesture in another country.

Gestures or emblems have been used to replace words in many countries, and they are often specific to a given culture. Gesture may mean something complimentary in one culture, but is highly offensive in another. Generally, there are no universal hand gestures. However, with the influence of television and movies, some gestures have become more widely known and accepted in many countries. In spite of that, if we want to succeed in international business and relationships, we should be aware of these differences, understand, respect and accept them. To many, these misunderstanding can still be a bigger deal than just momentarily annoyances.


Don't show this to a Turkish, Maltese, German, Brazilian and Russian
Don't show this to a Turkish, Maltese, German, Brazilian and Russian

What does this ‘Oh’ sign mean to you ?

If you are an English-speaking Caucasian and under the sea scuba diving around the world, it means ‘OK’, ‘good’, or ‘spot on’. In fact, it was believed that this ‘OK’ sign has been popularized by divers.

French understands it as ‘zero’ or ‘worthless’.

Japanese would read it as ‘money’.

Don’t show this to a Northern Greek. About 2000 years ago, ancient Greek vases have been found showing this gesture as a sexual insult. It is still thought the same way today. It implies that someone is a living manifestation of that unmentionable orifice, or refers to male and female’s genitalia, or as a signal that a man is homosexual. So, if you use this sign in northern Greece to tell a person that he is ‘ok’, he will feel insulted. He may retaliate. Alternatively, he may invite you home for an intimate dinner for two.

Other regions where this sign can be sexually insulting are parts of Central and Mediterranean Europe, Germany, Turkey, Malta, Sardinia, Tunisia, Greece, Russia, Middle-East, Paraguay, Brazil.

In Greece, this gesture will likely get you into trouble
In Greece, this gesture will likely get you into trouble
The obscene version of the thumb up gesture, used  in southern Sardinia.
The obscene version of the thumb up gesture, used in southern Sardinia.

What does “thumb-up” or “thumbs-up” mean to different cultures?

The gesture “thumb-up” is also commonly misinterpreted. In English, it is popularly known as 'thumbs up', despite the fact that the action is commonly performed with only one hand.  English-speaking Caucasians use it to signal ‘OK’, which is same meaning as O.K. ring gesture.  The two can in fact be used almost interchangeably.

 

To most Europeans, it signals the number 1, since they count from 1 to 5 beginning with the thumb for 1 and ending with the little finger at number 5.  Other nationalities, like Americans and Asians usually start counting on the index finger for number 1, and end on the thumb for number 5.

 

Avoid using this gesture in Southern Sardina or Northern Greece unless you want to invite a fight. There, it is an obscene insult signal meaning ‘get stuffed’ (or f*** you).   While American, British and Australian would use the thumb up to signal hitch-hiking to the drivers, this message will not encourage a Greek driver or motorist to stop to give them a ride.  

The Thumb up Meanings:

Based on 1,200 informants from 40 different locations from all over the world, the meanings of “thumb-up” were interpreted as follows:

 

O.K. 		738
One 		40
Sexual Insult 	36
Hitch-hike 	30
Directional 	14
Others 		24
Not used 	318
 
 

 

Source : http://bernd.wechner.info/Hitchhiking/Thumb

Understanding the cultural upbringing of a person is vitally essential to avoid misinterpretation of gestures and misunderstanding of the other person’s feelings and intentions. Most Asians are not used to looking Australians, Americans or British in the eyes, as they view it as cultural sign of disrespect, so the Westerners misinterpret the Asians’ intention as devious, insincere or deceitful. Most Europeans like to stand physically close to the person whom they are having a conversation with, much closer than the Westerners. Consequently, Westerners think the Europeans are ‘pushy’ while Europeans think the Westerners are aloof or reserved.

There are no right or wrong signals, only cultural differences. Lack of cultural understanding will lead to disharmony among people from different cultures. When we know what to look for, such encounters with other cultures are actually very interesting, fascinating and fun. It is certainly a great topic to discuss over a cup of coffee and cakes.



Copyright

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are owned by Ingenira who hereby asserts her copyright on the material. Permission must be granted by the author in writing prior to copy or republish this article in print or online.

© Ingenira 2012

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    • profile image

      Erika 19 months ago

      What does mean 'ok sign' in south korea.thank you and good article ha:)

    • profile image

      StamFROMGREECE 2 years ago

      this is wrong.... both the ‘Oh’ sign and the “thumbs-up” are the same as in the US... they are acceptable 100% i don't know where you get your facts but in ALL of today Greece you would not get in any kind of trouble for doing those gestures...

    • profile image

      Min7989 3 years ago

      Thank you. I'm trying to write gesture thesis.Now,my thesis step is reaching method and methodology.

    • greeneryday profile image

      greeneryday 4 years ago from Some tropical country

      Never thought a thumb up would give you different reactions in some countries. This hub is a good reminder for all of us to be more aware and learn a little about local cultures what should be avoid whenever we are in a new environment. Thanks for sharing this hub

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Gestures are cultural. Every culture has a set that may or may not be similar to another. Just to be sure, be careful with your body language and gestures when talking to someone of a different social or cultural background.

    • andrewcrter profile image

      andrewcrter 5 years ago from USA

      Interesting hub! Thank you for discussing some sign language and what it mean to other culture.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 5 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, The Jet.

    • The Jet profile image

      The Jet 6 years ago from The Bay

      This will definitely come in handy! Thank you for another cool hub.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, Blogger Sumon.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Singular Investor, thank you again for your comment. If the German or French is exposed to the word "westerner", they may not like it. I have German friends who heard about the word "western" for the first time in their lives. :)

      You are probably right about the universal gesture - pointing to ourselves to say "me". :)

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, crystolite, glad to see you again !

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 6 years ago from Houston TX

      Nice article,thanks for sharing.

    • Singular Investor profile image

      Singular Investor 6 years ago from Oxford

      Yes, I think the French and Germans and others would not be pleased at being excluded from the category 'Westerners'.

      With reference to gestures - there IS apparently one gesture that is universal. When we point to ourselves and say 'me' we all point to the same place - and it is not our head, where many people think we are. I haven't checked with everybody on the planet of course ! Perhaps you could put up a poll to find out which part of their body people point to when they point to themselves.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      You have a point, Singular Investor. Geographically speaking, British is a European and a Westerner.

      When I mentioned "Westerners", I was refering to Australians, Americans or British whoes mother tongue is English, while I referred the "European" to non-English speaking countries in Europe. Perhaps I should have been more precise as I mentioned them.

    • Singular Investor profile image

      Singular Investor 6 years ago from Oxford

      Very interesting - but what does this mean ?

      "Most Europeans like to stand physically close to the person whom they are having a conversation with, much closer than the Westerners. Consequently, Westerners think the Europeans are ‘pushy’ while Europeans think the Westerners are aloof or reserved"

      You talk about Europeans and Westerners as if they were different people - Europeans ARE Westerners ! I am British, European and a Westerner. So who are these Europeans you are talking about ?

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank so much, LukeMason for your comment and welcome to my Hub pages. :)

    • LukeMason profile image

      LukeMason 6 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting information! I feel like some signs are so universal but I guess not!

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Austin Yordy, sorry, I missed your post earlier. I must admit I wasn't able to respond fast enough before more comments come in.

      Thank you so much reading and leaving a comment.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      TurtleDog, I think many people should visit Northern Greece to experience the culture there.

      Well, if Northern Greek watched a lot of American movies, you'll be fine with the gestures.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      EniolaOluwa, really, lol means lots of love ? I thought it meant lots of Luck ? LOL... hehehe...

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Glad that you have fun reading this hub, char4u.com. Thanks for your visit and comment.

    • TurtleDog profile image

      TurtleDog 6 years ago

      Wow! Being from the United States, I'll have to watch my gestures in Northern Greece. Funny how the same signals have completely different meanings

    • profile image

      EniolaOluwa 6 years ago

      Am savin d page right away... Good job! How ever,i thought 'lol' als o mean 'lots of love'?..

    • char4u.com profile image

      char4u.com 6 years ago

      I won't use the wrong gestures again when travelling abroad and will pay more attention to their cultural difference. Have much fun of reading this hub!

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Glad you do, speedbird, and glad to see you here. :)

    • speedbird profile image

      speedbird 6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      wow..Good to learn some sign language here and how it applies to different cultures. Nice hub, Keep it up!

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      dahoglund, that is a very interesting story, thanks for sharing. I can imagine how the gestures can be taken so negatively by the locals during war time. Without a spoken word, a gesture can anger many.

      Sign languages part is really the best invention for people with disability. Perhaps it'd be a good topic for you write... the history of sign language. :)

      Thank you so much for dropping by and leaving a meaningful comment.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      This is an interesting subject. Years ago I worked with a young veteran who had just come back from the Viet Nam war. He mentioned how often his fellow soldiers managed to insult the locals by using gestures which Americans use routinely as positive. On the other hand American Indians used a sign language that is more or less universal and, I understand, the basis for the sign language now used by the deaf.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, John Orton. :)

    • profile image

      John Orton 6 years ago

      This is very interesting post.Tourist who visit different places of the world should also know about these things as they are very important.

      Thumbs up for this (Y) :)

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, John for your visit and interesting comment.

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      John 6 years ago

      Great hub regarding gestures...Smiling for instant can mean different thing in China. Especially with women they will take it the wrong way. Very original hub.

      Thanks http://usedbooks4cash.blogspot.com/

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you for your honest comment and compliment, Larry Gee (the travel guide). I travel quite extensively too, and so far, with God's blessings, I have not encountered bad experience with gestures. Maybe because I seldom use gestures, I work as a professional working with other professionals, and the locals know I am a foreigners. So, I presume you must be a well-liked and well-respected travel guide wherever you go.

    • profile image

      raycarboni 6 years ago

      Good article. Ive heard that the peace sign in some parts of europe, either England or Scotland because a king had those fingers cut off so they couldn't handle a bow & arrow.

    • Austin Yordy profile image

      Austin Yordy 6 years ago from Central Pennsylvania

      wow, I always assumed ok was universal. Good thing to keep in mind, thanks for the heads up.

    • Larry Gee profile image

      Larry Gee 6 years ago from London, United Kingdom

      Strangely enough, this has never come up in my travels - and it's probably for the best, as I might have gotten myself in trouble, it seems! Great hub, Ingenira - I love reading well-written hubs like this about different customs. It'll probably keep me out of a sticky situation in the future!

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, strictlydating expert. :)

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Mrs. J.B., thanks for your comment. It really depends on the country and the people whether they can forgive a foreigner's ignorance. Not everyone can be so forgiving. It's good to follow your intuition and sense it if there is something wrong, and do something about it.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thanks so much, Tryphena.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Prof superwags, thank you for your very interesting comment. Whether it is true or not, those are awesome stories to show how gestures can make a big deal.

    • stricktlydating profile image

      StricktlyDating 6 years ago from Australia

      A great read, really interesting!

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you for your comment, Cathyrin. Truly, if we have the desire to learn from browsing the web or reading from a book, the barrier of culture difference can be overcome.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      midnightbliss, glad to see you again. Thank you for your nice comment. I hope to see more hubs on legend and myth from you. I love those stories !

    • Mrs. J. B. profile image

      Mrs. J. B. 6 years ago from Southern California

      This was very interesting. I think though that if you go to another country and they know of course you are just a visitor, if you make a hand gesture that is insulting, that knowing you are a foreigner you would be forgiven.

    • Tryphena profile image

      Tryphena María 6 years ago from Panama

      Very interesting!

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 6 years ago from UK

      The supposed root of the British sticking two fingers is the battle of Agincourt in the 15th century.

      The French would cut off fingers of prisoners to prevent them from firing their bows. Because of this the English longbow-men would hold up two fingers at the French in a gesture to prove that they still had the ability to shoot an arrow.

      Whether this is actually true or not is probably debatable - I really hope it is!

    • Cathyrin profile image

      Cathyrin 6 years ago from Philippines

      Certainly, cultural differences is a great barrier in terms of communication with other people though it's not impossible to learn from books and other literature that could tackle the differences between gestures of different cultures. This is a very informative post, eh. Thanks.

    • midnightbliss profile image

      Haydee Anderson 6 years ago from Hermosa Beach

      when you're in a new place or country, its interesting to learn their culture and find out the differences.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thanks, Dovay Lee. Welcome to my pages.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      NateSean, wow, save people's lives...

      well, we will never know.

    • Dovay Lee profile image

      Dovay Lee 6 years ago from China

      useful

    • NateSean profile image

      NateSean 6 years ago from Salem, MA

      This is a hub that could actually save people's lives one day.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Well said, sirrot. I checked out your blog, it's very interesting. I have decided to follow you. You are cool !

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thanks, Money Glitch, glad to see you again after a long silence. Hope to see new hub from you soon.

    • Money Glitch profile image

      Money Glitch 6 years ago from Texas

      This is sooo interesting and shows truth in the ole saying, "gestures or actions speaks louder than words." I guess the best thing to do if in another country is to seek advice from someone that lives there and remember that the gestures may not be the same. Thanks for sharing. I'm rating this up for you. :)

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Haha, Ign Andy. That's interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ign Andy profile image

      Ign Andy 6 years ago from Green Home Office

      Hi Ingenira, this hub reminds me to Italian. I love to see Italian food programs and they always move, express, and have specific gesture when they talk. It seems, if we hold their hand they can't talk :). Anyway great hubs and vote up!

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, globalgirl from the Romantic Road in Dorset. :)

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      Yourglobalgirl 6 years ago from UK

      Great hub and very useful

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Appreciate your comment, fucsia.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      thanks, Tony. :)

    • fucsia profile image

      fucsia 6 years ago

      Good Hub ... is certainly helpful to know the meanings of these gestures when we travel! And in any case is a very interesting topic.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      I enjoyed your humorous and yet very useful Hub, thank you. Cultural understanding is a very important subject and this Hub goes a way to improving that.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, PaperNotes. Glad you enjoy reading it. Normally, if you look different from the locals, you will most likely be forgiven or laughed at. If you look like the locals, there is high possibility that you'll get into trouble, well, hopefully, it turns out to be an amusing one. ;)

    • PaperNotes profile image

      PaperNotes 6 years ago

      Hi Ingenira! Your hub is really interesting. What may seem acceptable in one culture would mean offensively to others so it is good to know about them so you won't get in trouble in case you have the chance to visit other places. Thanks, rated up.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      wordscribe43, you taught in Japan before, how cool is that ! It's certainly a great way to experience their culture. I'd love to do what you did one day !

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      My pleasure, Lilly. I hope your dream to travel around the world will come true.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thank you, Unleashed Victory for reading and sharing. :)

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      thank you, drbj. I saw that you have written extensively on matters related to interview. That's really awesome !

    • wordscribe43 profile image

      Elsie Nelson 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      What a cool hub idea you have, Ingenira. I remember when I was in Japan my students were interested in American gestures. It's interesting how many are cross-cultural, too. Thanks for sharing.

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      Lori J Latimer 6 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

      Ingenira, thank you for making me aware, that if my dream of traveling the world comes to pass, I may tie my hands to my sides, to avoid the wrong signals. Very helpful and voted UP!

    • Unleashed Victory profile image

      Unleashed Victory 6 years ago

      Ingenira, this is really good. I had no idea before reading this, but now I do. I'm sharing this with my family because it's so important to know how to communicate the right way, to show love but not offend. Thank you for a great lesson! (Voted up and forwarded to a few others)

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      This is an excellent introduction to the subject, Ingenira.

      Non-verbal communication or body language is a fascinating subject and as you point out, the meanings of common gestures can change depending on location.

      Body language is so important I devoted an entire chapter in my job search book, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So," to body signs and meanings especially as they apply to candidates in interviews.

    • Ingenira profile image
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      Ingenira 6 years ago

      Thanks, Katie, for being the first to comment. :)

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

      Very interesting, thanks for the heads up on gestures in different countries. :) Katie

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