9 Gestures To Avoid While Abroad

offesive-gestures
4 May 2023

Are you planning a trip to a country you’ve never been to? 

One of the most important things to do before traveling is to research the culture and customs of the country you are visiting. This is especially important when it comes to gestures.

Why is that? Well, gestures are a universal language that we all use on a daily basis. They are also an important part of our culture and identity. 

However, there are some gestures to avoid while abroad. They may not be offensive in your country, but are in another. 

This is why it is important to be aware of these nuances when traveling abroad. You don’t want to offend people and cause serious problems on the trip of your dreams!

But don’t worry. In this article, we’ll learn which mannerisms and gestures to avoid and see how to avoid rude gestures when traveling.

The peace “V” sign: don’t turn your hand away

The “V” sign is starting off our list of gestures to avoid while abroad. It is formed with two fingers and is widely understood as a symbol representing peace. What could go wrong, right?

You probably heard that in the current or former Commonwealth countries (UK, New Zealand, Australia), it may be seen as an equivalent to middle finger, if flipped the other way around.

But it doesn’t end there! Better to avoid this symbol, if you’re planning to visit:

  • Middle East
  • South America
  • Asia.

Why?

In some Native American cultures, the peace symbol is considered to be a sign of disrespect, while in the Middle East, it is often understood as a symbol of Western Imperialism.

What’s more, in some Asian cultures, it is seen as a sign of weakness.

If you’re unsure whether the peace sign is offensive in a particular culture, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and avoid using it!

The “OK” sign: is it really OK?

Next on our list of gestures to avoid while abroad is the “OK” sign. It is a simple hand gesture that most people use on a daily basis.

Its most common form is connecting the index finger with a thumb, so they both represent a circle. It’s hard to imagine it could mean anything wrong.

Still, you should be careful when going to these destinations:

  • In Brazil, the “OK” sign is often used as an insult, similar to giving someone a middle finger.
  • In the United States, it is sometimes used as a white supremacist symbol. If you don’t know the full context of the situation you’re in, better to avoid this altogether.

Last but not least, this gesture can be offensive almost everywhere, depending on the context.

Why?

Sometimes, giving someone an “OK” might be interpreted as sarcastic, e.g. if someone has made a point on a sensitive topic.

The thumbs up: approval or f*ck you?

Third on the list of gestures to avoid while abroad is the thumbs up gesture. You might think the “thumbs up” sign is a harmless way to show approval or support. 

Surprisingly, there are a lot of countries where your interlocutors might feel offended by it! Better note down these destinations, if you’re planning to visit them some day:

  • Italy
  • Greece
  • Iran
  • Iraq

In these cultures, the “thumb up” gesture can be seen as an insult similar to showing a middle finger.

It may come as a surprise, especially when it comes to the European countries. It’s not all, however, because if you’re planning to visit Italy and Greece, you should expect even more such examples!

Both cultures are known for their rich style of expression, with the use of many gestures. Not all of them may be interpreted as you think they are.

So be sure to read this article further, so that you know how to avoid rude gestures while traveling and not offend your interlocutors while abroad.

Fingers crossed: not always just a wish for luck

Are you planning to visit Vietnam? This beautiful country in Asia is becoming more and more popular among tourists. 

It’s important to note that Vietnamese culture has some differences to what we consider a proper behavior.

There is one gesture in particular that you should avoid while being there.

The “fingers crossed” sign, which is next on our list of gestures to avoid while abroad, is widely considered representing “luck wish”.

But not in Vietnam. There, it is considered to be rude because it resembles private parts. 

So, if you’re planning to travel to Vietnam, be sure to avoid using it, especially among children and elderly people.

And if you’re wondering if you can always get around since you don’t know the Vietnamese alphabet — Don’t worry, either. Get your electronic translator and understand everything written on the signs, menus and timetables!

The devil’s horn: evil or protecting from evil?

There’s no easy interpretation of this sign, and it depends on who you ask and where you are.

In some subcultures, the devil’s horn sign is seen as a positive symbol of strength and power, especially among heavy metal fans.

However, in many cultures, it is seen as an evil reference to the Antichrist.

It’s especially the case in countries with a rich Christian heritage and history, like 

  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Hungary 
  • and Poland. 

It is definitely a gesture to avoid while abroad. 

Paradoxically, in other countries, it is seen as a sign of protection against evil.

Feeling confused? Well, so might be your interlocutors if you use it with no apparent reason. So, outside of rock concerts, it’s best to avoid using this sign altogether!

Head shake: even that can go wrong

Did you know that in some cultures, a head shake actually means “yes”? 

To avoid confusing (and potentially embarrassing) situations, remember about this when you travel to these countries:

  • Bulgaria
  • Greece
  • Turkey

The head shake is definitely a gesture to avoid in cross cultural business environment. Even though this sounds harmless enough, it can have great repercussions on your mutual communication.

Keep reading, if you want to learn which mannerisms and gestures to avoid while traveling.

“Come here” gesture: we wish it wasn’t that ambiguous

Next on our list of gestures to avoid while abroad is the “Come here” sign.

It is a universal way of inviting someone to come closer.

It is typically used by children who want to play with their peers, but it can also be seen in adults who are trying to engage the attention of others. 

Even though “come here” gesture is often seen as cute or endearing, there is one culture, where it’s viewed as especially offensive when extended in front of someone… and this place is the wonderful and beautiful Philippines!

Why is that?

Well, if you’re planning to visit the Philippines, be reminded that this is also a sign commonly used to call a dog, and thus, might show disrespect towards other people.

Not to mention that almost everywhere around the world, your interlocutors might feel it has sexual connotations.

It’s in a good taste to avoid this gesture in all conversations.

The mountza: don’t make people “talk to the hand”

Learning how to avoid rude gestures when traveling may take some time if you want to know everything. Some gestures may seem innocent, but in fact, they can be really offensive in certain parts of the world

The mountza is an example of such as sign. 

Extending an open hand towards someone is a universal gesture that can help with ordering 5 pieces of something or just to show a mild refusal.

However, in certain cultures, a “mountza” is used as a gesture of contempt or dismissal. 

You should avoid it there:

  • Greece 
  • Middle East countries
  • most African countries.

But why is this gesture considered offensive?

People of those cultures believe that “mountza” implies that the person being dismissed is stupid, worthless, or otherwise unworthy of respect. 

Surely, you don’t want anyone to feel this way, so be careful not to use this gesture when in those regions!

Hands in the pockets: are you relaxed or just don’t care?

This may seem like an innocent enough gesture, especially if we’re feeling relaxed and safe. 

Still, this is considered as a sign of disrespect towards your interlocutors in many countries.

Check where it’s better to avoid it:

  • if you’re going to the UK 
  • Germany
  • or Japan 

Be aware that keeping hands in your pockets may be also considered rude in some other European and Asian countries. Better to avoid it altogether, especially in professional context.

Conclusion

We hope that now you know your way around the gestures to avoid while abroad, and that your trips and travels will be pleasant for you and others.

It’s worth noting that, even though all gestures mentioned here are not universally offensive, there are definitely times when they could be.

So if you’re traveling outside your home country, be sure to ask your host or the person you’re meeting for guidance about local customs.

This way, you’ll be able to make a good first impression and avoid potential misunderstandings or conflicts.

FAQ

What common gestures in the United States might get you into trouble abroad?

Avoid showing the middle finger, putting your fingers to your neck, and keeping hands in pockets during official situations.

What is a rude hand gesture in the Middle East?

There are several offensive gestures in the Middle East, but the universal one to avoid would be showing an open hand towards someone (“moutza”).

Do hand gestures mean the same anywhere in the world?

No. Hand gestures can hold completely different meanings depending on the place in the world.

What do V fingers mean?

It can mean “victory” in British culture but it can also be offensive. In some cultures, it’s considered a sign of disrespect.

What is considered a vulgar gesture?

There are several vulgar gestures. Generally, the most vulgar one is the classic “middle finger”.

What hand gestures are offensive in different cultures?

There are several offensive hand gestures. To name the major ones: moutza, “V” sign, “OK” sign, thumbs up, and devil’s horn.

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Robert Faber autor

Robert Faber

Robert is an avid traveler and a fan of new technologies. He can cook well, but never has enough time to do so and he ends up complaining about most meals. A regular at the gym.

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