Body language is universal. A smile is a smile anywhere you go. Tears are tears and hugs are hugs. Hand signals? Not so much.
Your hands can be used to convey a wide range of emotions, needs, and expressions. They're often our first go-to when we have something to communicate over a language barrier. Just like how different countries (and even different regions within the same county) have their own language dialects, they also have their own hand signs, signals, and gestures.
Making the wrong hand gesture to someone while you're traveling can lead to major consequences. The best case scenario: you offend someone you're trying to speak to and end up embarrassing yourself. The worst case scenario: you offend a country's principles deeply and end up going to jail. It's happened before!
In 2017, a British man in Dubai made headlines by getting detained for sticking up a finger. He had made the gesture to a driver in traffic and ended up being prosecuted by the state. His lawyer claims to have “dealt with thousands of such cases over the past 10 years,” so this is serious business!
We know that you would never purposely want to insult the countries you travel to, right? Plenty of gesture-related mishaps are innocent accidents. It's best to be prepared for any trip you take by reading up on which hand gestures are commonly used by the locals you'll encounter. It's especially wise to know which hand gestures to avoid, like the ones we've laid out for you in the list below.
25 20. Crossing Your Fingers in Vietnam (Avoid)
In some cultures, crossing your fingers is a sign of good luck or best wishes. It can also be used to seal a promise, like when you vow to keep a secret. In Vietnam, crossing your fingers is seen as making reference to a woman's body. If you cross your fingers in someone's direction in Vietnam, they are likely to consider it a huge insult. Vietnamese people usually make this hand signal while calling someone a crude name, but even if you make the gesture alone it's likely to get you a slap across the face. So much for good luck!
24 19. Thumbing Your Nose in Scotland (Avoid)
Be careful how you wipe your nose in the UK. If you end up with your thumb at the tip and some fingers in the air, you might be doing the old "cock a snook." This is seen as a sign of disrespect that's both aggressive and obnoxious.
Depending on the region or person, you might get a lighthearted laugh out of cocking your snook. It's such a childish gesture that when London's former mayor Boris Johnson made it at a heckler, his picture (above) made the news. Best to avoid coming across this goofy while you're in Great Britain.
23 18. Pointing the Wrong Finger in China (Avoid)
We point with our first finger so much in the Western culture that it is commonly called our POINTER FINGER. How can any other finger be the finger that points? It seems so natural and intuitive to point to things you want or need by using your first finger. In China, that's just not how they do things.
In Chinese cultures, the middle finger is used for pointing things out. You'll notice locals choosing items in stores by using their longest fingers, not any others. This seems weird to Westerners who often see a raised middle finger as a sign of disrespect. Alas, on the other side of the world, our chosen pointer finger is disrespectful, instead. The more you know!
22 17. Smacking the Back of Your Hand in Brazil (Avoid)
Imagine absentmindedly smacking your hands together, one on top of the other. You might be bored, fidgety, or even using this gesture to emphasize an important point in the conversation. The next thing you know, the people around you have dirty looks on their faces as they leave you where you stand. What did you do wrong?
Back of your hand smacking in Brazil is a stand-in for saying "I don't care." It's seen as a very rude signal by Brazilians, who pride themselves on being welcoming, warm, and friendly. If you accidentally show that you don't care about what they're offering, they won't be offering it again.
21 16. Cupping Your Fist in France (Avoid)
Holding one curled up hand in your other hand might feel comfortable, but be careful about doing it in France. If you find yourself making this gesture across the table from someone at a bar, for example, you might accidentally be asking for a fight.
One fist hit against another in France is akin to saying "let's take this outside" or "I'm going to beat you up." It's a sign that you literally want to punch someone. It goes without saying that it's a very bad idea to go around picking fights while you travel around Paris, so please, keep your hands under control.
20 15. Crossing Your Arms in Finland (Avoid)
In Finland, crossed arms mean major disrespect. It's another sign that you might find yourself doing if you're bored (or cold! Finland is cold!) but that has a good chance of sending the wrong kind of message.
Finnish culture sees crossed arms as a sign of arrogance and defiance. It's done mainly to tell the people around you that you are NOT the one. Instead of encouraging Finnish people to leave you alone, that message is taken as more of a dare. Finland WILL try you if cross your arms at its people directly. Fights have been started over less!
19 14. Three Finger Salute in Thailand (Avoid)
Remember The Hunger Games? This gesture was used by Katniss and her supporters to show resistance against The Capital's oppressive regime. It's now kind of a secret handshake type sign that fans of the book series do, but be warned: this sign should not be attempted in Thailand.
Thai citizens take this gesture very seriously. Whenever protests happen in the country, the three finger salute is used as a sign of resistance also. According to Yahoo News: "A military spokesman has said that they will be monitoring the usage of the salute and that those who refused to put down their salutes after being warned would be apprehended." Avoid!
18 13. 'Rock On' Horns in Spain (Avoid)
This one is unexpected. That kind of devil horns you make when you raise your pointer fingers and pinkies out of your fists? They don't mean "rock on" or "party hard" in Spain. They don't even refer to the running of the bulls, which we think might be a fair connection.
In Spain, making those bullhorns at someone means "your wife is cheating on you." It references the idea of a "cuckold," a label is sometimes given in biology to a male whose partner has been taken by another male, or who raises the children of another male. Spaniards generally see it as an insult, so steer clear!
17 12. Tapping Below Your Eye in France (Avoid)
Tapping your pointer finger directly below your eye in France can communicate something you might not be intending to say. This is a gesture that we make often (and mainly by accident), like when we freshen up our under-eye makeup in public or when we have an itch.
If you find yourself itchy or with dark circles that need covering while you're in France, be careful not to tap your under-eyes while you're speaking to a local or a French service person. They see this gesture as another way to say "I don't believe you." You won't want to be telling shopkeepers or new acquaintances that they're liars, t keep those fingers away from your eyes.
16 11. 'Come Here' Fingers in The Philippines (Avoid)
Giving someone the 'come here' fingers in the Western world can be a cute way to invite the person to get closer to you - in more ways than one. It's can be a flirtatious way to beckon someone from across the room or just an easy way to communicate that you need your friends to come to your side of the room without having to shout.
In the Philippines, this gesture is only used for beckoning dogs. To use it on a person is seen as INCREDIBLY rude. Tourists have even been arrested for doing it. Laws aside, it's always better to treat humans like humans, not animals, especially while traveling abroad.
15 10. Handshakes Over a Threshold in Russia (Avoid)
You might be tempted to shake hands with a person as soon as you meet them in Russia, but if you meet them in a doorway, don't do it! Step all the way through their threshold before you extend your hand for a shake. This applies in restaurants, homes, shops, and just about anywhere else you can go in this massive country.
It's not the end of the world if you forget this rule, but it is considered very unlucky by Russian people. Don't risk having a bad trip while you're exploring this beautiful and culturally rich country. Keep yourself lucky and avoid this easy foreigner mistake.
14 9. Waving in Front of Your Face in Germany (Avoid)
Waving in front of your face, palm in is a sign that people use in Germany to tell other people "you're insane." This is so different from the Western way of gesturing that, which normally involves pointing at your temple and swirling your wrist around. We would never have guessed that a simple backhanded wave would mean insanity, but in Germany, it just does.
This way of waving was made popular in the early 2010s by G-Unit, the 50 Cent fronted rap group responsible for such hits as 'Straight Outta Southside' and 'Hate it or Love it.' The Germans hate it, so keep your waves palm-out while you're there.
13 8. 'Five Fathers' in The Caribbean (Avoid)
We love traveling throughout the Caribbean. Where else in the world can you find such spectacular sandy beaches, crystal azure waters, and vibrant local culture? This part of the world contains some of our very favorite luxury destinations, so we recommend you visit it as often as you can.
It's important to be aware of what not to do while you're there, however. If you ever see locals using the hand gesture above, don't try it for yourself. It involves pointing one finger of one hand in the middle of the other, representing one "mother" and five "fathers." As you might have guessed, this is another one of those signs that suggest parental promiscuity. Pass!
12 7. The Teeth Flick in India and Pakistan (Avoid)
Got some delicious Indian food stuck in your teeth? Feel like biting your nails in Pakistan? Whatever you do, don't choose to use your thumb for any of these teeth-flicking tasks. Flicking your top teeth with your thumb in India or Pakistan is a way of telling someone to essentially "screw off."
Locals consider it to be a seriously odd gesture. It's been around for centuries as a way of aggressively swearing at someone who has wronged you, a lot like the raised middle finger is in the Western world. Keep that thumb out of your mouth if you want to avoid insult (or even injury) while visiting this exotic part of the world.
11 6. The Chin Flick in Italy (Avoid)
This is one gesture you may have heard of before. It involves you tucking one hand under your chin and then brushing/flicking it out aggressively towards the person you want to insult. In Italian culture, this gesture is a big deal. Like the teeth flick, it is a major 'screw off' to whichever unlucky person it's directed at.
If you're visiting Italy and hoping to make a good impression on the people around you, do not attempt to use this gesture. You may be tempted to try it as a way to feel like an authentic Italian, or you may just feel itchy under your chin. Chances are, people will be offended by it, so proceed with caution.
10 5. The ‘Moutza’ in Greece (Avoid)
To Greeks, putting your hand out with an open palm is a serious sign of disrespect. It's not quite a wave (you don't move your hand from side to side) but some of us (like Prince Harry) do use this gesture as a way to greet people. Not everyone sees it as a friendly greeting, however.
This old hand gesture actually has roots in ancient Byzantium. When criminals of the day were paraded through the streets, spectators would use an open hand to smear donkey feces onto them as they passed. That's the sentiment that this gesture relays to people in modern Greece, so unless you really do think someone deserves this disgusting treatment, don't try it.
9 4. The 'Fig' in Turkey (Avoid)
Turkish figs are delicious. The Turkish fig hand gesture on the other hand (no pun intended) is absolutely obscene. It's essentially the hand shape you make when you're telling a kid you've got their nose: your thumb peeking out from between your pointer and middle fingers.
In any other place in the world, this gesture is totally benign. In Turkey, however, it is used to deny a request in an aggressive way. If someone asks you a question and you respond with your hand in a fig, you are giving them a loud and rude 'no.' Because of this, it's totally inadvisable to play 'got your nose' in Istanbul.
8 3. Thumbs Up in Arabic Countries (Avoid)
The thumbs up is one of the most popular gestures we personally use. What better way to say 'all good' to your besties when they're all the way across a room? What better way to pose with a politician or artist you endorse? Unfortunately, this is a terrible idea elsewhere in the world.
In Afghanistan and Iran, a raised thumb is a guaranteed way to get yourself into trouble. Translated roughly, this gesture (especially when partnered with a big sweep of the arm) means that you want to stick something into something else in a super unpleasant way. People raised to glean this meaning from a thumbs up will be very offended by you using it towards them, so beware!
7 2. The 'OK' Sign in Brazil (Avoid)
Touching your pointer finger to your thumb and leaving your other fingers raised is used in some Western cultures to tell someone that everything is a-okay. In Brazil, the same cannot be said. It's kind of the equivalent of telling someone to 'screw off,' again similar to the raised middle finger gesture we're so familiar with.
Brazilian culture reads this gesture as the sign of a bodily orifice, so showing it to somebody is understandably rude. The faux pas of making this sign among Brazilians became famous in the 1950s when US President Nixon made it in the direction of the Brazilian Prime Minister at the time. Big mistake.
6 1. Peace Sign in The UK (Avoid)
The peace sign is number one because it's one of the most popular gestures made by tourists. It's a cute way to pose in pictures, and especially popular among tourists from East Asia. The peace sign is a tricky thing in England, though: doing it in one direction is harmless, but doing it in the other is a big offense.
If you're in the United Kingdom and you give a peace sign with your palm facing out, you're safe. If you give one with the BACK OF YOUR HAND facing out, you've communicated a whole different meaning. This gesture is akin to a raised middle finger and can make your UK visit entirely un-peaceful. Do not attempt!