Hand gestures can be used to communicate in place of speech or emphasize a point while speaking. There are many universal hand signs; such as holding up an index finger to speak or interrupt, putting a finger to the lips to ask for silence or holding your open palm out to say ‘stop!’ These are generally understood all over the world.
But there are some hand gestures that in one country might mean the opposite or something else entirely in another country.
However, if used the right way in the right place, hand gestures can be a fun way to communicate as well as bridging the language barrier.
The following gestures have more than just one alternative meaning.
The OK symbol
This gesture consists of creating a circle with the thumb and index finger with other fingers extended. In most of the English-speaking cultures and many other countries, it means ‘ok’, that everything is fine or perfect.
In Australia it means ‘zero’ while in many Western countries it actually means ‘three’ and in China it is a way to indicate ‘seven’. Confusing right?
It also means ‘money’ in Japan.
But in Brazil, it is considered a rude gesture and in France it is also an insult.
The horn symbol
This gesture involves tucking the two middle fingers and thumb and holding up the pinky and index to imitate horns. It has been adopted by hard-core rockers as a sign of approval, to rock on!
It is also used by fans of The Longhorns at sport games at the University of Texas in Austin to mean ‘Hook ’em Horns’.
But interestingly while it is the sign of the devil in many European countries, it is actually a positive sign in both Hinduism and Buddhism.
The sign is also used to indicate that someone’s spouse is cheating on them in Italy, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, Columbia, Spain and Portugal.
Originating as a symbol of female independence and freedom, it was used while drinking to show support for this. After becoming fashionable and ‘the thing to do’ in company, it turned into something associated with being elegant and fancy.
From American culture, if a user presents their pinky, it means they are ready to make an unbreakable promise called the ‘pinky swear’.
In China, it signifies the user is not happy. While in Japan, it is the symbol of a lover or significant other.
GESTURES WITH VARIATIONS
Sometimes, a gesture that means one thing, if slightly changed will mean something else. Or other times, two gestures will mean the same thing but look slightly different.
The ‘V’ Sign
This sign has the index and middle finger extend up to make a ‘V’. But there is a big difference in its meaning depending on which way the palm is facing.
Palm Facing Out: Originally this sign communicated Victory but is more commonly used now to mean Peace, because the peaceful protesters against the Vietnam War adopted the sign while saying ‘Peace’ so it became popularly known as The Peace Sign.
Palm Facing In: This way, the sign is an insult similar to giving the middle finger, particularly in the UK and South Africa.
Thumb and Index finger together
When you rub your thumb and index finger together, this gesture means ‘money’ in the USA and Germany, and is understood to mean this in many other countries too.
But in South Korea, if you do not run them but pinch the fingers slightly overlapping, this means love as it signifies a small heart.
In Spain, if you repeat the action of opening and bunching closed all the fingers this means that somewhere is packed.
In Brazil, if you move only the thumb in and out of bunched fingers, this means somewhere is full.
So the two are slightly different but in this case they have a very similar meaning.
HARMLESS OR OFFENSIVE?
And then there are gestures that are completely harmless to some people, but in other cultures are actually quite offensive.
The Thumbs up gesture is a widely recognised sign of approval or agreement in many countries and also in social media.
But in Bangladesh it is an insult and in the Middle East it is an offensive sign of disapproval.
In the USA and many similar cultures, the gesture of using your index finger to beckon someone to come to you is not a welcome gesture in Asia. In the Philippines, this should only be used to beckon dogs. It is highly offensive to use it with humans. The Japanese also consider it rude and in Singapore it means ‘death’.
In the USA and many other places, crossing your index and middle finger signifies good luck. Whereas in Vietnam, it is an insult, like giving the finger.
ITALIANS, THE MASTERS OF HAND GESTURES
And then there is Italy. The Italians are a very expressive people, whose language uses many hand gestures to accompany and emphasize their everyday speech. But these gestures can also be used without speaking and still communicate very well on their own.
There are so many, but here are just a few well-known gestures.
Running the back of your fingers from your neck upwards and past the tip of your chin. This means ‘I don’t give a damn!’ and is typically meant aggressively.
Bunching the fingers together and swiping up and down with the wrist. This means ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this!’ or ‘What are you talking about?!’ and is usually expressed with annoyance.
Line in the air
Pressing the thumb and index finger of one hand together and drawing a straight horizontal line in the air. This means ‘Perfect!’ and the user is very pleased.
PREPARE AND TAKE CARE
Of course it helps to prepare before you visit a country so that you do not mistakenly insult someone. But if you forget or make a sign out of habit, just remember to smile and apologise. And perhaps with an explanation, most people will be understanding enough to not be too offended and maybe you can even laugh about it afterwards.
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