Published : Aug 1, 2019

Hand signals: different meanings in different cultures

A previous Berlitz blog discussed the importance of nonverbal communications and how meanings differ significantly from culture to culture. Of special importance, however, is how you use your hands. Hand movements often have a huge impact on how you are perceived in different regions, from very polite to very rude and, sometimes, even hostile and vulgar.

The Berlitz Cultural Navigator® can help you learn the difference.

For example:

  • Putting your thumb and index finger together in a circle is the sign for “OK” in many cultures particularly North America and parts of Europe. In other European regions, it can mean the person you’re talking to is a zero, while in some Mediterranean countries this sign is a sexual insult.
  • The same is true of the “thumbs up” sign. In many regions (Canada, the U.S., Australia, the UK, and others) this sign is considered to represent approval or to be OK. This sign is considered to be very rude and vulgar in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
  • In some parts of North America it is considered alright to summon someone by moving your index finger back and forth, or by snapping fingers. Other cultures believe these signals are disrespectful.
  • Raising your index and pinkie finger can indicate an unfaithful wife in Mediterranean regions, but is considered protection against bad luck in parts of South America.
  • Even the “V” (for victory), sign made famous by Winston Churchill in WWII, has different connotations. In some areas the “V” with the palm facing outwards means peace. In other areas, Australia, for example, it’s considered offensive to others.
  • Flicking your cheek with your hand means “I don’t care” in Italy, “get lost” in other parts of Europe.
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