Hand gestures in different cultures and what they mean

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Hand gestures are a great way of reinforcing what you’re saying.

But caution:

They can mean different things in different cultures.

Here are six hand gestures and what they mean in different cultures:

hand gestures different countries

Thumbs up

This widely recognised sign of approval or agreement is actually used as an insult in Bangladesh.

In certain parts of the Middle East, thumbs-up is definitely a highly offensive thumbs-down.

The thumbs-up sign has been confusing people for thousands of years!

hand gestures different countries

Come here

This is used in the United States to ask a person to step forward, but in Asia this gesture isn’t welcome.

It should only be used to beckon dogs…if you do it in the Philippines you could be arrested.

hand gestures different countries

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The horn fingers

In USA “the horn fingers” is adopted by rockers and it is a sign of approval, rock on!

Hook ’em Horns is the slogan and hand signal of the University of Texas at Austin.

But in many Mediterranean and Latin countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Italy and Portugal, to make this sign at someone is to tell them that their spouse is cheating on them.

hand gestures different countries
Looking at your watch

This means ‘I’m in a hurry’ or ‘I’ve got to be somewhere’.

In the Middle East, however, a conversation should run its natural course, as it would be very rude to look at your watch mid-conversation. In Arabic culture, once communication has started, it must “take its time”.

hand gestures different countries

The Ok

In most of the English-speaking world, as well as in several other countries, this hand gesture means that everything is fine, great, okay and/or perfect.

In Brazil, however, it is considered a rude gesture. The most famous example of this was in the 1950s when Richard Nixon visited Brazil and flashed the “Ok sign” to a waiting crowd upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro, who responded with boos!

What hand gestures mean in different countries

The “V” Sign

This sign has two formats: one with the palm faced outwards, and another with the palm inwards.

In the US, both ways refer to “victory” and peace: protesters against the Vietnam War and activists adopted the gesture as a sign of peace. Because the hippies of the day often flashed this sign (palm out) while saying “Peace”, it became popularly known (through association) as the peace sign.

In other places, such as in the UK, Australia and South Africa, the same gesture with the back of the hand facing the other person is considered to be an extremely insulting.

Next time you practice your new language skills remember to be sensitive with your hand gestures!

If you liked this post, you’ll enjoy our overview of Italian gestures and what they mean.

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Luciano was a Localisation Editor at busuu. Having grown up in Rome in a bilingual family, languages are a big part of his life. He later moved to London where he studied Computer Games Design and Story Development. You can usually find him playing board games, mooching around art galleries and cooking! He also loves reading and writing.

364 COMMENTS

  1. Just a FYI: The “V” sign with the palms facing outward is actually the sign for “peace” in the U.S. & is referred to as the “Peace sign,” respectively.

  2. RE Nixon, he should have fired his ‘front men’, whoever they were, for not investigating the meaning of the gesture. Although, he is the guy who talked about ‘football’ to student protesters at The Washington Monument, so……………..

  3. Thanks so much, busuu. It’s very important information so we can act carefully if we use hand gesture in other countries or meet other people.

  4. I want to learn French, but I want the one that teaches you how to pronounce it. I want the one that talks

  5. Play it safe and don’t ever use hand-signals when travelling in a foreign country. Having said that, what should I do when riding a bicycle in a foreign country and I should make some kind of hand signal when I must turn a corner; close my eyes and hope for the best while in heavy traffic?

  6. excellent lesson these gestures sometimes may have created a lot of problem.these gestures and their meaning are absolutely new for me, i did not know it before.

  7. The “v” sign with Palm facing out gesture in the U.S. means “peace”, “peace out” as in wishing peace for someone as a nice gesture when they are leaving. It has nothing to do with victory. Who wrote this article and got that fact incorrect?

    • The V sign originally meant victory, as in V-Day, May 1845, to celebrate the end of World War II. Two decades later, it also came to mean peace. The fact is not incorrect. The article encompasses a broader view than many young people are aware of.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful lesson!
    Even about my own country!
    This is good information .
    To keep us polite and safe.
    Tip. Do not make likenesses of The Prophet Mohammed.
    The Bible also forbids this!
    Not supposed to picture Anyone, according to the Bible!

  9. Very useful and interestjng. Would you comment the horn fingers meanung in Africa? Many African scammers do it on pictures.

  10. I used to enjoy busuu, but then you made some changes and my old account would not work and I could not get a new account because you said my email or account or something was already in use! So I gave up.

  11. Wow! Thanks for the information. The finest of verbal skills can be completely undone with the wrong gestures!

  12. Thanks for let me know those hand gestures and it is very important to know it as some gestures are not appreciate to other country

  13. its amazing. i will use these slides to teach my students the power of non verbal communication. thanks

  14. Wooow awesome
    ….personally i am not a fan of most of these hand gestures, choosing to remain stritly professional. This is good advise indeed…… Will be extra cautious

  15. I’d better just stick with cheers and hello then,hope they have no hand representation too.cheers

  16. The horn fingers among Turkish people in Azerbaijan of Iran is the symbol of wolf, because Azerbaijan is the land of fire and has some characteristics of wolf

  17. Grateful to have learn this different signs and what it mean to many nations around the world.

    I’m excited.

  18. WOW! Very insightful into the differences in culture. Good to be made aware of. Thank you. Rachael

  19. very good ,i like it.

    becuase sign is very create rool in your life. any where.
    i m a learning man. ho ho man not boy becuase im 18 year old.

  20. Pretty interesting! Some of those signs I knew before but still very interesting. Btw you are the only language learning platform that understands the importance of non-verbal communication , thumbs up for that!!

  21. In the Philippines? Not really, the ‘come here’ sign may be a bit offensive, but you can’t get arrested by just that. Actually I have just showed that sign to my brother but he acted normally and said “Yeah, what?” just like that, keeping his cool.

  22. Greetings Lady Anna. I am very please to be privileged to have received these lesson note from your benevolence caring office Busuu. Just for me to know all these signs which I did know any about all this while , though i use to see these signs being done by people. Thank you so much for awakening my awareness to be careful where ever I may be in life affairs. Thank you a zillion times a second Busuu and lady Anna for taking the time to remember me and send me the lecture note.GOD ALMIGHTY bless you mightily for me. Sister Jayne.

  23. Thank you busuu for the very important information,people have learnt a lot otherwise a person could find himself in the hands of police.

  24. Wow I like it….very interesting and inspiring lesson on hand gesture mean in different countries and it enable me to know more. Really i would like to thank busuu Teams for this all very important issues.

  25. very interesting to know the meaning of our gestures and those of the others in order to interpret them right

  26. This was really nice of you to teach all about this. Thank you for that.
    I really enjoyed learning what hand gestures mean in different country. Thanks a lot for that.

  27. very intersting for me to learn much with you about gestures and their meanings in other countries; it is always something useful and amazing. thk you very much. I’m pleased to learn with you more and more.

  28. This is very interesting! the “looking at your watch” one is very funny because it’s very true in the Arab world, but sometimes people keep talking and you’d be in a hurry and you need to make them notice, but nooo you’d come off rude, as if not caring about wasting others time is not xD

  29. I knew most of that and actually in Asia, the hand with palm down and movement inward means come here, also the finger pointing to the nose rather than the heart means ‘me’

  30. Very interesting. You made ME read it. The way things are in other countries now. I probably would never venture outside the U.S. Living in this Free Country (So they say) I will remember this when speaking to people from other countries that are visiting or now living here.
    Thank You!

  31. body language is so important for every one, it is a part of communication without body language our communication is not complete it’s incomplete, and above hand gestures is also a part of body language and it is important for all because if we go aboard and we can’t speak foreign language then hand gesture can help us, so I recommend these for friends.

  32. Diddorol iawn…mae ‘dau fys’ yn arwydd di-chwaeth ym Mhrydain…mae hyn yn wir am y ‘bys canol i fyny’ hefyd. Pam nad yw Busuu yn cynnig cyrsiau Cymraeg? Iaith y Nefoedd!
    Why doesn’t Busuu offer courses in Welsh? The language of Heaven!

  33. These are very good observations… One should always remember to “dig” deeper into the international meaning of gestures when going abroad.It is common sense to be careful not to offend the people there by using a hand gesture which might seem perfectly positive, but at the same time it is important to know the meaning of a hand gesture of native people, in order to avoid misinterpreting it as offensive.

  34. it is amazing Anna. because of globalized communication, I hope people may learn to use more common gesture. I use thump up for z same purpose now. but in the village grew up it is taken as a serious insult. thank you for sharing

  35. it is amazing Anna. because of globalized communication, I hope people may learn to use more common gesture. I use thump up for z same purpose you mentioned now. but in the village i grew up it is taken as a serious insult. thank you for sharing

  36. Thanks a million for this vauable and interesting work. It is a proof of the importance of knowing the others’ cultures for it may saves lives.

  37. Thank you so much for this great information. I really think that it could be helpful if you are a traveller person or you need visiting different countries when you are working! Unfortunately it’s not my case!! Anyway I must say that I never make hand gestures at all because I don’t like that kind of comunication! Also I have an allergy, so I always use my fingers to take my snot out from my nose and scratch my ears!!!

  38. I’ve known this for years. Originally the middle finger, longest finger was used to point. The V sign originated by Churchill was sign victory palm out. But in some South America countries it has sexual connotation which is your mother is on her back- puta. Italians use thumb off teeth outward- not good. We think Churchill had cigar in in v shaped fingers as victory so my English people tell me but could be folklore. Spanish no with index finger up and move arm like windshield washer means no, never. You can expand on this but maybe just keep fingers to yourself. Dr. Bayer. Very good you brought this out and can expand on it

  39. There’re many many more, the best advice is to keep one’s hands out of the conversation. In some places one has to be carefull on the placing the fingers on the hand of whom one is greeting. The forwarding and presentation of one’s hand on a basic hand-shake, can be seen as critical in some situation or countries. (All personal experiences!)

  40. My husband and I know a bit of ASL and in college would sign to each other a lot. The sign for the letter F is the same as the colloquial “OK” sign in English. So, when one day at a crowded table I asked him how he did on a test he had, and he replied with a forced grin and the “F” sign, everyone else thought he was saying “A-Ok” and only I caught his real meaning.

  41. Hi there,
    Thanks for the insight on what not to do where.
    I’m from South Africa and did not know that the backwards peace was insulting. Maybe it is insulting to the really old generation because the rest of us use it to mean goodbye as in ‘peace, I’m out’. Very interesting

  42. This is very interesting. Now i gained very important information about hand gesture. It is very important issue for every one to know it.

    thank you so much.

  43. It’s highly educative. Highly amazed to know about these things today, I’ve one time used thumbs up for someone on the main road in Malaysia…can’t imagine what could have happened. Thanks for the info.

  44. I didn’t know we’ll get arrested if we do the come here sign here in Philippines. But sure it’s really offensive to do that here.

  45. One more: the ‘fingerscrossed’ sign in Australia, Aemrican and European countries I suppose actually means ‘Vagina’ in many Asian countries.

  46. Thanks bussing your are providing me a good information for different country sign which very helpful for me.

  47. Just to add, the “hook ’em horns” is also American Sign Language for “I love you” as it combines the symbols for the American Sign Language letters “I”, “L”, and “Y”.

  48. Thanks for the knowledge of hand gestures. So many of us never realise it can be offensive in other countries. To Keep the good knowledge to keep the peace. But spread the good knowledge is to spread the peace and love. ???<3

  49. Thank You,,, !!!, to have Appraised, Informed, and more so, ALERTED, to USE THE SIGN LANGUAGE, and GESTURES, MORE CAREFULLY, and JUDICIOUSLY, lest we Land into, Unwanted, Avoidable Trouble,, and that too,,, UNAWARES,, !!!

  50. O Sinal de “ok” não é considerado rude no Brasil, é que temos um significado ruim quando o mesmo sinal é feito com a costa da Mão pra fora, e pode ficar ainda pior se ficar descolando os dedos repetidamente…

  51. Another driver flipped me off when I was in Brazil. Since he used the same hand gesture that in most countries means “OK” it didn’t bother me in the least; even though I knew he was trying to be nasty. I thought it was cute.

  52. Hand gesture it is something looks like fantasy thing, but the reality is not that and it depends on how this meaning could be understood
    thanks

  53. it’s interesting but be careful when we use them. be sure to understand them through and where you are!

  54. I.m very surprised to see all of those different meanings. Those hand gestures and many others are really used by peoples without knowing their real meanings. I should suggest that before using every hand gesture in a foreign country or in public meetings, a wise man should first lean or ask from a local citizen the local meaning of each hand gesture.

  55. MyESL students from Colombia showed the height of a person with the hand held sideways but the height of an animal palm down. At a table with students from many countries there were three versions of showing the numbeer twenty with the two hands: shoving, twisting, opening and closing.

  56. Thanks so much, busuu. It’s very important information so we can act carefully if we use hand gesture in other countries or meet other people

  57. I love very well the site busuu ! It’s a best site. It permit us to learn the differentes Foreign languages. Thank to them.

  58. The two finger gesture has a long history some say it goes back to the Franco/English 100 year war or the battle of Agincourt, others attribute it to the severing of defeated archer’s fingers. Other body parts are said to cause offence too, in some parts of China and Philippines it causes offence to show the soles of your feet.

  59. The “Horn Sign” means “I Love You” to all the deaf at the Veteran’s hospital in Long Beach, CA. My brother and his kids use it all the time for “Good Bye, I Love You!” I have always thought the signing by the deaf was universal????? I know that “Thumbs Up” was the sign the Romans used to encourage a gladiator to KILL his opponent, NOT spare him. IF you are not deaf, or associate with a deaf person,don’t sign!

  60. Yes, To improve in my knowledge, the world experience. I honestly confessed, how exactly dangerous to show sign in other part of the world.

  61. Interesting but in I am Colombian and the horn sign isn’t used here to say that someone is cheating on its spouse… You say “He is putting you horns” but the sign isn’t used.

  62. in Uganda “v” sign with palm facing outwardly means victory which has
    been widely used by the most famous opposition political party forum for democratic change FDC

  63. Hi.they were perfect.
    But the ” ok ” sign also has another meanings too.for example in japon it means coin(money) and in france it means zero( 0 ).
    Thnks for informations.❤????????

  64. Thank you for this most interesting and informative piece on hand gestures and their meaning around the world. I think everyone should read it before taking off on vacation to another
    country and culture !

  65. I am a Bangladeshi and I think you have a wrong information at the beginning. Thumbs up is not an insult in Bangladesh. I have never seen anyone in my country to see thumbs up as an insult. Rather it is a sign like everything thing is fine or good.

  66. The O.K signal could mean a threat in the arabe world as if one is saying “I’ll beat you if you do it again” , when it is being done in an angry manner of course.. #_#

  67. Haha this is cool to know. and its helped with my Psychology homework so thank you Busuu! haha (: Have a lovely day everyone 😀

  68. I was very moved on how you got the languages correct and my mother is proud someone still knows the meanings and knows what a rude gesture is and isn’t.

  69. I want to go up to a Cuban and do the Horn Fingers. OMG!! They will be like ¿Que? And I will trying to hold it all in (laughter)

  70. I’m South African never heard about the V sign or Peace sign being insulting before. Great article but I’m not sure about the Peace sign and South Africans finding it insulting.

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