Around the World: The Surprising Meanings of Different Gestures

Wed, Jun 15, 2016 at 7:20PM

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With all the recent negative talk about immigration—from building walls to restricting drivers’ licenses for DACA recipients—it’s always nice to enjoy a quick laugh! In today’s blog, we’re looking at several examples of common mix-ups that can happen when cultures collide around the world.

A nod for “no”

In the US—and most parts of the world—we nod to say “yes” and shake our heads to say “no.” If you travel to Bulgaria or southern Albania, however—or spend time with people from these regions—you may need to familiarize yourself with an entirely different gestural vocabulary. In these regions, a shake of the head is used to signify a positive reaction. In these places (in addition to Greece, Syria, Turkey, Sicily, and a few other countries), an upward nod signifies “no.”

The “shoo away” wave

If your friends from Ghana, India, Vietnam or the Philippines appears to shoo you away with a brushing wave, don’t take it personally—they’re probably beckoning you to them! In these countries, the more traditional “come here” gesture (using an upward-facing palm and finger) is considered rude. In the Philippines, for example, it’s a gesture reserved for dogs—which explains why human friends might take offense!

“V” for victory

The “v” sign, made with the pointing of the index and middle fingers, has a patriotic and peaceful history in the US. However, it has less positive associations in other parts of the world. In Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK, it is seen as a rude and defiant symbol.

Thumbs up

To many English-speaking countries, the thumbs up is a traditional sign of approval and positive feelings. However, countries such as Iran or West Africa traditionally viewed this symbol as more insulting than kind. With worldwide usage and the popularization of the thumbs up on sites like Facebook, though, these symbol of goodwill seems to hold a more widely understood meaning nowadays.

“A-Okay”

In many parts of the world, the extension of one’s index finger and thumb into the shape of a circle is a sign that everything is going smoothly, or “A-Okay.” However, don’t be surprised if friends from other parts of the world take it less positively! In Brazil, Turkey, Greece and several other countries, this sign is seen as a rude gesture.

Were you in the know about these cultural “missed cues,” or are you guilty of a few yourself? Understanding the little differences that make up cultures from around the world is the key to coexistence—so the next time you’re traveling or interacting with friends from another background, take some time to remember what’s what in their culture! They’ll appreciate the gesture.


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