Hand gestures and body gestures can have meanings in other countries and cultures that are not what you think they are -- for instance, an "OK" sign in the United States is a circle made with the thumb and forefinger; in parts of Europe, it could mean that the person to whom you're making the gesture is a big fat zero. In Brazil, it could mean... um... something really rude. (That would be an insult.) And in some countries, the number three could be signified by a gesture that looks similar to the okay sign. So check out our list of hand gestures around the world, and take note if you'll be heading to any of these countries soon -- it's always best to err on the side of caution and try to avoid gesturing if at all possible.
And if you do manage to slip up and offend someone, a simple apology and explanation that you didn't know it was offensive are often all it takes to make amends.
Pointing Finger: Often a Rude Gesture in Any Country or Culture
Over the early 2000's, a pointing finger came to be an affectionate gesture in the USA: sort of a, "Yeah, you, you're cool." Previously, it had been perceived everywhere as a marginally rude gesture, though it was occasionally used to great effect in advertising (think, "Uncle Sam Wants You").
Be careful using it abroad, though: it's still not really polite to older generations, and it's not polite, at all, to anyone in the Middle and the Far East (use an open hand to point when you're in that neighborhood).
If in doubt, motion with your head to point at something.
OK Sign Is Okay to You, a Big Fat Zero to Some Europeans
A simple "OK" seems, well, simple, right?
However, the gesture made by circling thumb and forefinger, with the middle, ring, and pinkie fingers extended, has a couple of other meanings than the "Okey dokey" we're most familiar with. Traditionally, it's a way to show the number three in many Western countries, and a way to indicate the number seven in China.
In Japan, however, the okay gesture means money, which could lead to confusion if you use it to indicate everything's okay while you're in the country.
It can also be used in an insulting fashion in some Western countries, such as France -- as in, "You great big zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing." Ouch.
In Brazil, however, the okay symbol is the equivalent of giving someone the finger in the U.S. It's seen as a highly offensive gesture, and should definitely be avoided.
And in some places, it can mean that you're indicating that the other person is a, um, body part with happens to be round (and hidden). Easiest just to smile enthusiastically when things are indeed "OK" in these parts of the world.
Loser Sign - or the Number Eight in Chinese?
Should you be lucky enough to travel to China, know that the vendor at that street stall is not telling you that you're a loser for playing it safe with the onion pancakes (what, the skewered thing with several legs doesn't seem appealing?)
No, the vendor's telling you what it costs... and it has to do with the number eight (two fingers up, and ten fingers minus eight fingers is two). From there, you're on your own -- just don't feel offended by the gesture.
(By the way, if you haven't yet, do read Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman, a mesmerizing memoir of the author's first big trip abroad that started with an aborted trip in recently opened-to-foreigners China).
Thumbs up May Be a Downer
Although we haven't personally had too much trouble with this one, we've got a friend who swears she supremely dissed a shopkeeper in West Africa with a thumbs up sign. After asking around a bit, we learned that in some parts of the world, it means to sit on the thumb. And possibly spin. Again, better off with the enthusiastic smile to indicate that all is well.
It's not just West Africa, though. The thumbs up gesture is seen as offensive across large parts of the Middle East and South America, too. If you're in the habit of throwing a thumbs up at people to express your happiness, try to quash it for any trips to the regions mentioned above.
Peace Sign, V for Victory, or Fighting Words and Hideous Insult
The peace sign seems so universal to us Americans, doesn't it? Well, what's widely accepted for us can be seen as offensive in other countries around the world, so this is yet another gesture to use with caution.
The two fingers held aloft in a V are fine provided your palm is facing out, but in some countries -- namely, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom -- it's an insult of the first order if you make the same gesture but with your palm facing inward. In other words, you don't order two beers in an English pub by holding up two fingers with your palm facing you unless you want to get in a bit of a brawl. In fairness, it's not likely to offend many people these days, but could be taken the wrong way, so is best to use carefully and not at all if possible.
And to some (mostly to older generations), two fingers held up with the palm facing out means V for victory -- hard to insult anyone with that sentiment, but you may find yourself rather misunderstood.
Bottom line: Don't worry about accidentally insulting your hosts in a foreign country with some inadvertent rudeness. Be friendly, be polite -- they'll know you didn't really mean to imply anything about sticking anything anywhere with some casually thoughtless and simple gesture. Especially if it's accompanied by a genuine smile.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.