Travelers often attempt to break language barriers by using hand signals, or gestures. But one must be careful in other countries. Signals may mean something entirely different outside of the U.S. In the book, “Do’s and Taboos Around the World,” Roger Axtell explains that hand gestures may cause awful misconceptions.
“As he looked around the table, he knew he had clinched the sale. Triumphantly, he raised his hand to his Latin customers and flashed the classic American okay sign- thumb and forefinger forming a circle, other fingers pointing up. The sunny Brazilian atmosphere suddenly felt like a deep freeze. Stony silence. Icy stares. Plus embarrassed smirks from his colleagues.”
In other countries, the sign that we understand to mean “great” or “OK” actually means “You’re an asshole” or something similar to the middle finger signal we use.
“In Europe the correct form for waving hello and goodbye is palm out, hand and arm stationary and fingers wagging up and down. The common American wave with the whole hand in motion means no—except in Greece, where it is an insult that is likely to get you into big trouble.”
So before you think to lift your hand, nod your head, clap your hands, or wink your eye- look up what these things mean in the country you are visiting!
Learn more about foreign understanding of gestures and signals!