It’s inevitable and we all do it at some point or another when traveling– we unintentionally embarrass ourselves with a seemingly innocent and familiar gesture. I know I’ve been guilty of it on more than a few occasions. Who doesn’t love to take a sweet thumbs up photo in front of an amazing location? However, if you’re passing through certain countries, you might want to reconsider. As humans, we not only communicate verbally, but we express ourselves with facial inflections, gestures and body language, as well. Needless to say, it’s important that we learn and utilize mannerisms that are politically correct, respective to each culture we visit.
Here are the top 5 most commonly misused gestures that I wish someone had told me about when I got my passport:
1. Thumbs Up
Generally seen as “cool” or a sign of approval in the United States…or perhaps a roadside request for a lift in various parts of the world, but you might get a different reaction from the locals should you be in Thailand, Greece, Iran or Afghanistan. Thumbs up in these countries are viewed as profane, and in some places, like giving the ‘bird’. On the contrary, it is known as “money” in Japan or “zero” in France.
This one can get you in some trouble if you aren’t aware of the direction your palm is facing when you make a peace sign. In the U.K., Australia and some Commonwealth countries, a peace sign with the palm facing inwards is taken as a insult similar to “up yours”. However, the palm out gesture is widely accepted around the world…most notably, in Asia.
Things are definitely not OK when using this common gesture in Brazil, Turkey and Germany. This is quite possibly the most difficult one for me to remember when overseas. How else am I to articulate how delicious my mouthful of food is when the waiter asks how my meal tastes (with impeccable timing, of course) ? No, the last thing you’d want to convey to a person in charge of your food, is that you think he or she is an asshole…Unless, perhaps they are, and you are feeling rather cantankerous.
4. Pointing & Summoning
Generally, none of us get particularly warm and fuzzy when someone points at you or summons you by curling in their index finger with their palm facing up. (Insert random memory of mom scolding me in public as a kid) This is a pretty common feeling amongst many cultures, however, not as obvious to some. It’s considered rude in China, Slovakia, Malaysia, East Asia, Singapore, the Philippines, and many other countries around the globe. Should you wish to beckon someone, it is more appropriate to keep all fingers together and with the palm facing down, scoop your fingers in a scratching motion. If you wish to point at something, offer a palm up gesture in the direction of which you wish to draw attention to, keeping all fingers together. Think Vanna White! Its safe to assume that it will garner you a more pleasant response, no matter where you go.
5. Yes Means No
Imagine your frustration when asking someone if they could help you with directions in Bulgaria or certain parts of the Middle East, only to have them nod ‘yes’ and then walk away! A nod up and down of the head in many cultures would indicate an affirmative or positive response, however, this gesture means the exact opposite in other parts of the world. Good to know for the next time that creepy guy at the bar in Bulgaria asks to buy you a drink.
Highway 41 | Fresno, CA
Photos by Richie Chance
DeniSeptember 24, 2016 at 17:09
I didn’t even realize that nodding your head “yes” would mean the opposite in some countries! That would’ve been a strange experience to have happen to you! When I first clicked on the post, I fully expected to read about Americans talking loudly or something along those lines. There’s been a couple of times in Europe, where I’ve had very rude experiences, only to have a complete 180 once I volunteered the fact that I’m Canadian, not American! Anyways, great post! Can’t wait to read more of your tips & your adventures!!
DeziStyleSeptember 25, 2016 at 23:55
Thanks Deni. I learned the hard way with some of these gestures! I always find it so interesting to learn about other cultural norms though, so I had to share. I’ve also heard about the difference of experiences between Canadians and Americans. Although I currently live in the United States, I was born in Switzerland so I used to rock the Swiss flag on my backpack when traveling abroad and I can’t help but feel that it may have created a slightly better experience. Funny how things work sometimes. Thanks for sharing with me! 🙂