Gestures in Different Cultures

“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” –Paul Auster

When traveling to a foreign country, understanding body language and gestures is just as important as understanding the native language. We have all heard the popular saying that 55 percent of our communication is shaped by our body language.  When speaking to each other, we tend to support our words through posture, facial expressions, and hand movements. Little do most people know  that the body language that we so often use when conversing with each other can come about as humorous or outright hostile to people in other nations.

Here are 6 very confusing, and amusing, gestures spanning across different cultures and continents that differ depending on where you are:

  1.  To demonstrate the diverse set of interpretations that various cultures have for specific gestures, we can look at the way people in different cultures communicate the word “yes”. People in Iran dip their head to signal approval while Saudi Arabians prefer to shake their head side to side.

2.  It can really get confusing in Bulgaria where shaking your head means “yes” and nodding your head means “no”.

3.  Thumbs up in European and American cultures signal approval, while Islamic and Asian countries view it as very offensive.

4.  Stretching your hand forward with your palm facing out does not mean stop in Singapore or Malaysia, rather it is a way to attract attention or ask permission to speak.

5.  Curling your finger to summon someone may seem like an innocent gesture unless you happen to be in an Asian country where this type of gesture is used only for calling dogs. Even worse, in Singapore, the dog call is viewed as an indication of death.

6.  Pointing the middle finger in the air is considered a rude gesture in the U.S.; pointing the index finger means the same thing in Arab countries

Hand gestures and body language mean very different things across different cultures. Knowing this it is especially important for communicating in business and in politics. In 1992 president George Bush faced an embarrassing situation after displaying the V or “peace” sign with his palm facing inwards instead of outwards on his visit to Australia. To the Australian crowd, the gesture essentially meant the equivalent of the middle finger. The lesson here is the importance of researching the meanings of gestures and body language used by other cultures in the world. If a culture is new to you, it is best to avoid using certain gestures that could inadvertently insult or offend your guests or hosts. We hope that being aware of the diverse meanings of various gestures can help you appreciate and respect the diversity of the cultures around the world. This will allow you to travel and know how to communicate with people in business situations or in times of pleasure. Happy travels!