Dangerous Body Language Abroad

Posted Jul 26th 2010 01:00 PMUpdated Aug 10th 2010 01:17 PM


You are in a foreign country, and don't speak the language. You order something indecipherable off the menu, and when the waiter brings you a plate of delicious noodles, you smile and make an OK sign at him with your thumb and forefinger linked in a circle. He then picks up the dish and throws it in your lap.

What happened? Welcome to the wonderful world of international hand gestures, where nothing is quite as it seems. Making what we Americans see as the positive OK hand sign has a dizzying array of translations around the globe. In parts of Europe, it can mean "okay" or it can mean "zero." In other parts of Central and Mediterranean Europe as well as in Brazil, it denotes an unmentionable orifice-and that the person it is directed at is indeed a living manifestation of that unmentionable orifice. In several countries in South America, it's a slur that means homosexual. And, as a recent Budget Travel article points out, even pointing your foot in the wrong direction can be considered extremely offensive.

"We call these gestures emblems," explains Janine Driver, a body language expert and author of the New York Times bestseller You Say More Than You Think. "Emblems are territorial, sometimes specific to just a part of a country, like gang signs." And these slights can be a bigger deal than just momentarily annoying your neighbor. "It's not enough for us to understand and respect these emblems, we need to accept them if we want to succeed in international relationships," says Driver. "Ten years ago, polls showed that other countries looked at the U.S. as the proper way to do things. But now less than 50 percent do."

Here's a cheat sheet to help you decipher the different international nuances that turn "It's OK" into a decidedly non-OK situation.

Thumbs Up
In America and in most of the world, the thumbs-up sign has a similar connotation to the OK sign: All is good. Tradition has it that this gesture came about during Roman times when the audience would use a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture to express if they would like a gladiator to live or die. The gesture was called pollice verso, meaning "with a turned thumb." But the thumbs up is especially problematic in certain parts of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia, where the thumbs up is a more aggressive gesture that is basically flipping the birdie to someone. The Philippines takes this thumbs-up birdie to a higher level, by swiping an upward pointed thumb by the side of the head. It's interesting to imagine what people in these regions think when an American hitchhikes, or when U.S. soldiers happily stick their thumbs up to the locals. Or what about politicians' famous thumbs affirmations during speeches?

Fig Sign
The "fig sign" is a gesture where the hand is in a fist with the thumb poking out between the index and middle fingers. It's either a wonderful good luck charm or the worst insult you could ever give someone, depending on where you happen to be at the time.
In ancient Rome, an image of a hand in the fig sign (mano fico) was worn as an amulet to protect against the evil eye. It was affiliated with female genital reproductive powers, as the Italian word for the female vulva, fica, means fig. In modern Portugal and Brazil, many people still wear fig sign trinkets as jewelry. The fig sign's repulsive power could also account for its use as an obscene gesture. In places like Indonesia, China, Russia, and some Mediterranean regions (particularly Turkey), the sign can have an insulting meaning roughly equivalent to "screw you." Before you think you would never make such a gesture, one wonders what the locals think when visiting American parents play the "I stole your nose" game with their children.

V Sign
Oh, what a difference the back of the hand can make.Winston Churchill flung up a celebratory victory sign at the end of World War II, with his arm outstretched to reveal the index and middle finger in a V-shape. Hippies later used the same gesture as their calling card, meaning "Peace." Well, as anyone who has traveled in the Anglo world (specifically the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) knows, by simply turning your hand around so the palm faces the signer, and adding a few thrusts upward, you've instantly made overseas enemies. Like the fig sign in other parts of the world, this back-handed V sign means "screw you" in most of the English-speaking world. George Bush, Sr., was said to have unwittingly flashed the offensive sign when he meant to show the peace sign to protesting farmers while touring Australia.

Devil Horns
Best known as a heavy metal headbanger concert sign that became popular in the late '60s, the devil's horns origins stretch back much further. The sign of the horns, or corna, was an ancient European guard against the evil eye (like the aforementioned fig sign).However, in Mediterranean countries (particularly Italy) and in Cuba, you'll see the devil's horns flash their ugly head often on the motorways, where irate drivers express to each other that their wife is, uh, not of the sexual moral standing that she should be.
The "Hook 'em Horns" hand gesture at the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns' football games does not translate well overseas either. Lifting ones pinky and index fingers and thumb all at the same time may mean "I love you" in American sign language, but when George Bush, Jr. gave the Longhorns' sign during his second inauguration festivities in 2005, Nordic newspapers printed accounts that they were sure he was flashing the sign of the devil. And according to The Definitive Book of Body Language, five Americans were arrested in front of the Vatican while dancing and flashing the devil's horns after a Longhorns victory.

The Moutza
The moutza is a famous Greek hand gesture to denote displeasure towards the recipient. Similar to the 90s American talk show staple "talk to the hand," the offended spreads their fingers out and thrusts their palm out towards the offender. If you really want to start something, try a double moutza with both hands on top of each other and see if you can make it out of an Athens bar in one piece.The origin of the gesture is said to be Byzantine, when criminals were shamed by rubbing palm-fulls of cinder (moutzos) all over their faces.
In addition to Greece, showing the palms of one or two hands in considering insulting in parts of the Middle East and Africa, and in Mexico, a palm to the face, often with the thumb and forefinger creating the letter C, can mean to the receiver "you're gonna see!" or "there's more to come!"
Or, basically, shut the hell up.

Credits: Thumbs Up: Getty Images; Fig Sign: Getty Images; V Sign: Getty Images; Devil Horns: Marc Broussely/Redferns, Getty Images; The Moutza: Alamy
Filed Under: Tips & Tricks

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Tomboy Jessie

Well if the countries set a few rules on certain hand signals and they're not OK with like "the devil horns" or "the moutza", then I say we have to respect that, it's best to not argue with them unless you want to start a war with I.E. England for doing a backwards peace sign.

April 14 2014 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I guess I will not show anyone a hi 5.

September 25 2010 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don't really give a f*ck what other countries think of any hand gestures, hope they are offended.

September 25 2010 at 1:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brenda Seals

Say what you want--if the US crashes financially, so does the rest of the world. So, yes, we do carry weight.

September 25 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

thumbs up at someone in thailand means "i'm mad at you" not "ok."

September 25 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's not just foreign countries. If you want to see my wife go nuts just have one of the kids or grandkids put their hand up to her face when she's talking to them or scolding them.

September 25 2010 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

in american sign language for the deaf the devil horn sign means i love you

September 25 2010 at 12:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to r's comment

That is not true. "I love you" comes from the letters I, L, and Y. There is no L in the bull horns.

February 14 2012 at 8:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

A common gesture in any restaurant is to summon a waiter by holding your hand up and and waving it at the wrist ( meaning "come here"). In most Asian cultures, this is how one would call an animal such as a water buffalo or goat, not a person. However, the way to do the same acceptably, is to just reverse your hand, (fingers pointing down towards the floor) and waving at the wrist. It's always a good idea, I think, to verse oneself in the day to day protocols of other cultures if you frequently have contact with them or if you plan to travel.

September 25 2010 at 11:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to allan's comment

Gosh, I just can't resist asking if the water buffalo actually understands the hand gesture and comes ambing over to see what you want, lol. Also, the article is incorrect in the statement of Romans' thumbs down gesture for gladiators. We were told, as tourists at the Coliseum, that it was not a thumbs down gesture, but a thumb across the throat or carotid in actuality. Our guide was a professor from the Vatican.

September 25 2010 at 12:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How about we stay in our own country and spend our money here. That way we don`t accentally offend anyone.

September 25 2010 at 10:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well, let's all show our ignorance once again. Just as you would like visitors to our country to respect our culture and traditions, shouldn't we do the same when we visit others. And what does our fighting in WWI and II have to do with anything. Ever thing what would have happened if we hadn't? And, by the by, "foreigners" fought in the American Revolution along side our soldiers. Stop confusing the lack of common sense, courtesy and good taste with patriotism. Loving your country does not mean being disrespectful of others when we visit abroad. And if you are threatened by the cultures of others, than it's best to stay home. Really home - cause there are a lot of variations in culture right here in America.

September 25 2010 at 10:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply