American culture has undoubtedly influenced much of the world in terms of music, film and fashion. However, distinct cultural differences still exist throughout the world in terms of body language and expressions. For example, simple hand gestures that we use to communicate can mean one thing to us but something very different to others. As our business world becomes increasingly global, it’s a good idea to be aware that an innocent gesture could get you or your company into some hot water.
Roman emperors used it to show whether a defeated gladiator should live or die. Today we routinely use a thumbs up gesture to convey approval. For Americans, a thumbs up side means “Job well done!” or “It’s all good!” We also use it to convey you are in need of a ride. In Thailand, however, a thumb in the air means something akin to sticking your tongue out at someone. It’s a childish annoying gesture.
In Greece, West Africa, parts of South America and many Arabic countries, that same thumbs up gesture means something more obscene. Let’s just say it means about the same – or even is a more emphatic version — as extending the middle finger at someone does in our culture.
And here’s another reason to keep your thumb in your pocket when you travel – particularly if you attend auctions or handle contract negotiations. In Germany and Hungary, a thumbs up sign represents the number 1. In Japan, the same finger means the number 5.
V sign with pointer and second finger
England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill popularized the “V” for Victory” gesture during World War II. We also use it to convey peace, but if you use this seemingly friendly “V” gesture out of the U.S., take heed which direction your palm is facing. If you make the “V” with your palm facing inward in Australia, the United Kingdom or South Africa, it essentially is giving them the middle finger.
An extended open palm
We might extend our palm to indicate openness or to ask someone to come closer. We might also an open palm on an upright arm to mean “stop” or in modern vernacular “Talk to the hand.” This open hand gesture is considered an insult in Greece, Pakistan and in parts of Africa and Asia. Called a “moutza,” the gesture dates back to the Byzantine Empire, when criminals would be paraded through the streets. To increase the criminal’s shame, citizens were encouraged to rub charcoal (and sometimes excrement) via that open palm onto the criminal’s face.
The OK sign
When we make a circle with our thumb and pointer finger while holding the other three fingers in the air, we use to mean everything is alright. In countries including Brazil, Germany, Greece, Turkey and Russia, however the gesture means something vulgar and can imply something about a person’s sexual orientation. In Japan, the same gesture means “money,” while in France it means “zero.”
We cross our pointer and second finger to mean we are wishing for good luck. You may need that good luck if you make this gesture in Vietnam where it is the equivalent of a vulgar remark meaning you think someone is quite less than a lady.
Hook ’em horns
Here in America, if we see someone with their fist raised and their index and little finger extended, we associate the gesture with the Texas Longhorns. It has also come to reflect a general “Rock on!” or “Party on!” mentality. In Italy, however, the gesture is an insult that means your wife is cheating on you. The sign is also an insult in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Colombia, and is even considered a curse in some African countries.
A pointed index finger
Pointing your index finger at someone is considered to be rude in many cultures. Be wary of using your curled pointer to beckon someone to come closer in other cultures, however. In most Asian countries, it is a gesture fit to call dogs, and therefore is insulting to do to a person. In the Philippines, the gesture could even land you in jail.
Using your left hand
While we don’t give much thought to what hand we use when we offer something to someone, using your left hand can be a major faux pas in some countries. In the Middle East and many Asian and African countries, the left hand is reserved for bathroom hygiene and is therefore considered to be unclean. Handing someone something with your left hand then can be considered an insult.
If your business or personal travel takes you abroad, take the time to educate yourself on that country’s gestures and common use of body language. As a general rule (notice I didn’t say as a rule of thumb?), the safest approach us to avoid using your hand and/or fingers to gesture until you are familiar with the local customs.