6 hand gestures in different cultures (& 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 6 hand gestures – and what they mean – in different countries and cultures:

hand gestures different countries

1. 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

2. 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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3. 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
4. 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

5. 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

6. 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.