Hand gestures that are commonly used where you live could be considered rude elsewhere. When holidaying abroad, don’t upset the locals by showing what you think are acceptable hand signals. Here are some gestures and what they mean in various settings.
How: Form an ‘O’ by connecting your thumb and forefinger, and holding the other three fingers upright.
This sign is generally used to show that you are feeling good or happy with a situation. However, in the Middle East, Brazil and some Mediterranean countries like Greece and Turkey, it is a vulgar gesture that refers to one’s anus — you are actually calling the person “an a**hole”. The gesture may also be interpreted as calling someone “zero” or “worthless” in parts of Europe, such as France or Belgium.
One of the most famous incidents of this misuse happened with former US president Richard Nixon. When he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he raised both hands, each forming the OK sign to express what he thought — that everything was well between the two nations. However, he ended up getting booed by the crowd!
How: Stick your thumb up and close all your fingers into your palm.
This gesture is generally synonymous with the OK sign mentioned earlier; it is used to signal “I’m good” or “I agree”. It is also commonly used by hitchhikers to catch a ride.
But be aware that in South America, the Middle East and parts of Italy and Greece, this gesture is an insult that says “sit on it” — it is the equivalent of sticking up your middle finger!
How: Form the letter ‘V’ by pointing up and parting your index and middle fingers upwards with your palm facing outwards.
Widely known as the ‘victory’ or ‘peace’ sign popularised by the 1960s American peace movement, this commonly indicates the number ‘2’. Since the 1980s, many East Asians use it in reference to the Japanese kawaii pop culture.
Be careful with the direction your palm faces in countries such as United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. When your palm faces inwards towards yourself, it turns into a symbol of defiance. It could be taken that you are saying “up yours!” and is definitely a rude gesture in these locations.
How: Stretch all digits out with your palm facing out.
The ‘stop’ or ‘halt’ gesture received new meanings, which were popularised in the 1990s: it can also be interpreted as “shut up” or “talk to the hand (because the face isn’t listening)” when raised to someone’s face.
Greeks feel insulted by this gesture, which is one of the oldest offensive hand signals still in use. There, the hand signal is known as moutza and dates back to Byzantine times. In those days, it was common for shackled prisoners to be paraded through the streets. To add to their humiliation, the townsfolk would smear the prisoners’ faces with dirt or faeces applied with open palms.
How: Make the ‘V’ sign, then twist one of the raised fingers over the other.
This gesture is shown to someone upon whom you wish to impart good luck, often accompanied with the words “fingers crossed” or “keeping my fingers crossed for you”. It is interpreted as an attempt to implore God for protection and stems from early European Christians, who made the sign to invoke the power of the cross as a symbol of recognition of a fellow believer in the face of persecution.
Avoid using this sign in Vietnam as it symbolises the female genitalia and is considered extremely rude and indicative of crude intent.
How: Stick your index finger and pinky out while closing the rest of your fingers.
The horn sign is ubiquitous in the music scene, and functions as the shorthand for “rock on!”. It was popularised by the heavy metal culture, notably by Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio in the 1970s, and associated with rebellion and anarchy at rock concerts. The horn sign is also known as malocchio in Italy, where it is used to ward off the evil eye.
The gesture is an insult in Mediterranean and Latin American countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Colombia. In these countries, it represents cuckoldry; when directed at a man, it insinuates that his wife has been unfaithful to him.
How: Stick your thumb and pinky out while closing the rest of your fingers.
The ‘good vibes’ or ‘hang loose’ sign is Hawaii’s most well-known hand gesture. It has been casually adopted by surfers and scuba divers worldwide as a greeting and could mean “hello”, “have a nice day” or “goodbye”. It evolved from a deeper symbolism of the aloha spirit, which demonstrates acceptance, understanding and respect for each other.
Fortunately, this has yet to be misunderstood in other parts of the world.
Left-handed individuals should consider practising ambidexterity to avoid an international incident.
Never use your left hand to shake hands, eat or pass items when you are in a Hindu or Muslim community. In these areas, the left hand is considered unclean and reserved for matters related to personal hygiene. This is why using your left hand in social settings is highly offensive in these cultures.