Travelers Beware: 6 Hand Gestures That Could Get You in Hot Water Overseas

Want to blend in with the locals? It starts with knowing what hand gestures to avoid abroad.

Traveling abroad gives you the chance to do a number of daring things. And whether it’s by using the right utensils for an exotic entrée or the left lane for a drive around town, it’s fun (and occasionally crucial) to tackle new experiences the way the locals do.

This brings us to perhaps the most exhilarating way to try blending in with the locals in a foreign country: communicating! Of course, in places where you know only a few basic phrases, hand gestures are key to getting your message across. But, surprisingly, this is where things can get quickly off track … and instead of blending in, you accidentally stir up trouble.

From the unintentionally rude to the patently absurd, hand gestures abroad can say something entirely different than they do at home.

To help you avoid embarrassment (or worse) on your next journey, here are 6 hand gestures to avoid abroad. After all, as the saying goes, “When in Rome … just keep your arms to your sides, ok?”

1.    Thumbs-up

What you’re probably trying to say: “This is how the Fonz would describe your incredible local cuisine!”

What you could accidentally be saying: “I’m not particularly fond of you.”

Where this mix-up can occur: In parts of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Asia, and the Philippines, the thumbs-up is a much more aggressive signal than it is in America, similar to our middle finger.

How to atone for your mistake: With a gift-wrapped DVD box set of Happy Days.

2.    High five

What you’re probably trying to say: “Great job,” “Hello,” “Hold on,” or (20 years ago) “Talk to the hand.”

What you might accidentally be saying: “Talk to the hand” (present day).

Where this mix-up can occur: Greece. While the open palm has gone out of style as a sassy gesture here in the U.S., it’s still going strong in this Mediterranean hub. And, although not quite as inflammatory as in Greece, the open palm could also spell trouble in parts of the Middle East and Africa.

How to atone for your mistake: Fist bump.   

3.    Peace sign

What you’re probably trying to say: “Peace” (obviously).

What you could accidentally be saying: Er, “Not peace.”

Where this mix-up can occur: This can be a very insulting hand gesture in places like the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia, but only when the palm faces inward, an error famously committed by Winston Churchill.

How to atone for your mistake: Become the most revered prime minister and inspirational leader the offended country’s ever seen (still, that might be too little too late).

 4.    Beckoning finger

What you’re probably trying to say: “Come here a minute.”

What you could accidentally be saying: “Death to you.” (Yikes!)

Where this mix-up can occur: In Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and some parts of Africa, your casual invitation isn’t what you thought it was.

How to atone for your mistake: Buy them a round once they get over to you.

 5.    Fingers pressed to your nose

What you’re probably trying to say: “There’s a funky smell in here.”

What you could accidentally be saying: “I don’t trust you.”

Where this mix-up can occur: In southern Italy, something as innocuous as a foul odor can turn into a much deeper issue if you’re not careful.

How to atone for your mistake: Share a juicy page of your diary to show the offended parties they’re back in your inner circle.

 6.    Pointing

What you’re probably trying to say: “Do I go that way?”

What you could accidentally be saying: Well … the same thing, just with a whole lot more ‘tude.

Where this mix-up can occur: Many places — probably best to give up this hand gesture anywhere abroad. Using an open hand to motion this way or that is typically a softer, more respectful approach than pointing.

How to atone for your mistake: Um, buy them a round. Who said it’s only a good remedy for one mistake?

International car insurance through Esurance

Knowing which hand gestures to avoid abroad is one way to steer clear of travel misunderstandings. Another one is having the right international car insurance. If you’re traveling north or south of the border, our partner can help tailor a policy that suits your touring plans and helps ensure an unknown driving law doesn’t mean saying adiós to your savings.

You may also want to learn about the international drivers permit. This widely recognizable form of ID can give you some credibility abroad and help you smooth things over with foreign authorities.

Have your own foreign-communication tips (or blunders)? Share them in the comments below.

Related links

Learn how car insurance works when you go out of state.
Read about the 7 most humiliating driving mistakes, and see if you’ve made one (or two).
Here are 5 helpful tips for driving on the left side of the road.

19 Responses to “Travelers Beware: 6 Hand Gestures That Could Get You in Hot Water Overseas”

  1. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Da'Von Dorsett
    June 15, 2014 #

    Hey Alex, pleas help me with this FLORIDA CAR INSURANCE issue. I was told by my current car insurance company that I can't have multiple cars under my name unless the amount of EXTRA drivers for each additional car leaves in the household. Now my question is how can an insurance company dictate this to me when I see people like JAY LENO and others with 75 plus registered and insured cars under their names? I have 2 cars now and they say I have to have an additional driver to insure anymore. HMMmmmmmmmmmmm

    • Avatar for Alex Glenn
      Jessica Guerin
      June 17, 2014 #

      Hi Da’Von. I checked with one of our insurance experts and she thinks this rule may be specific to your insurance company, so we suggest following up with your insurer to get more information. Many insurance companies will allow you to have more cars than drivers on your policy, so you may want to shop around if your current company won’t allow it.

      In some cases, you may be required to provide documentation confirming that there are no unlisted drivers using the vehicles. As a general note, if people outside the household are driving the car(s) regularly, they should be listed on the policy. And if any of the cars are kept at a different address, you may need to set up a separate policy for those vehicles.

      I hope this helps!

    • Avatar for Alex Glenn
      John Fowler
      August 21, 2014 #

      What do you mean by "leaves"? Are you trying to say lives? I was reading your question and could not make much sense out of it.

    • Avatar for Alex Glenn
      Herb Hilderbrand
      March 12, 2015 #

      I live I Florida and have 7 vehicles tagged and insured with only my wife and me to drive. Change insurance companies

  2. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Jay Baronoff
    October 7, 2014 #

    Alex. You missed a big gesture that can get you in trouble in Argentina. At dinner one night while visiting a tannery, my hosts asked me if the steak was " to my liking". Since I had a mouthful of quite delicious steak, I could only reply with the "OK" sign ! I received shocked looks in return. I knew I had committed a social error! The tannery rep later told me that in Argentina this is equivalent to " flipping the bird" or giving the finger. At breakfast the next morning, the rep explained what "OK" meant in the States and we all enjoyed a good laugh!

  3. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Janet Julien
    October 9, 2014 #

    As for Winston Churchill giving the "Backwards Peace Sign", What makes you think that he didn't do it intentioally to flip off Germany and Hitler? The sign, which also happens to be the ASL fingerspelling version of "V" came to stand as "V for Victory" during WW2. the sign itself is much older dating from the times before Agincourt when the French would cut off an English bowman's index and middle fingers when the English were captured to keep them from drawing a bow against the French later. It thus became a cheeky way for the English to let the Fench know that they hadn't been caught and was thusly free to kill the French another day and is the equivalent of shooting the other person the bird.

    • Avatar for Alex Glenn
      robert bell
      June 17, 2015 #

      While I don't know how to prove it I believe the peace sign is a hippie bastardization of the V for victory.

  4. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Orange Rhino
    October 10, 2014 #

    Never, never drive overseas. Every American is seen as rich, and in some countries, if you "disable" the breadwinner you have to support his/her family. Walk or ride in a taxi. No fare will ever be as high as a trip to court.

  5. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    October 14, 2014 #

    This does not sound correct at all

  6. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Dirk Baily
    November 18, 2014 #

    Why is it that we should be so worried about what other countries think? I'd like to know if they are concerned about not offending us when we visit. Geesh. Lighten up people.

  7. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    December 8, 2014 #

    In the southern part of US a lot of people find pointing to be offensive.

  8. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    December 26, 2014 #

    In Japan when you beckon to come to you by waving your hands towards oneself with the fingers up, it is how they call dogs— the proper way is to extend your hand backside up and palm down and move your fingers towards yourself with the fingers pointing to the ground. HOWEVER, do not do this is in a store trying to get the attention of an employee, it is disrespectful. INSTEAD, when you catch their eyes, give them a slight bow of the head and they will come right over to you

  9. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    December 26, 2014 #

    Matt san, youku dekimashita. Domo arigatoo gozaimasu

  10. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    January 28, 2015 #

    Churchills hand was raised in the "V" for
    Victory sign

  11. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    January 28, 2015 #

    Domo Origato, mr roboto.

  12. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Retired Chaplain
    February 23, 2015 #

    In Brazil, the "figa" sign (closed fist with the thumb protruding between the index and middle fingers) is considered lucky, and both men and women wear figas on necklaces and key rings. In Italy, on the other hand, a figa is an earthier equivalent of the middle finger (which has lost much of its meaning and become simply derogatory, much like the F-word itself).

    The best rule for anyone visiting a foreign culture is relatively simple– until you have a good handle on the cultural niceties, keep your hands in your pockets!

    And #Dirk Baily: Perhaps you needn't worry about what other people think of the U.S…. if you remain in the U.S. However, when we go to other countries, we are there as guests. By your logic, we shouldn't allow American women to drive, to avoid offending visitors from our close ally, Saudi Arabia!

  13. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Ed Cifelli
    March 11, 2015 #

    I found that if someone asks how the food was and you want to respond safely. Take your hand and bring your fingers and thumb together so that it it resembles the head of a bird. Then kiss them . I used it in Rome and got smiles and thanks. It is especially good when you have food in your mouth and can't talk.

  14. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    March 12, 2015 #

    Learn your history before you exercise your ignorance so publicly, Glenn. World War II English Prime Minister Winston Churchill purposely made the classic "sod-off" V-gesture (what the Americans call a "peace sign") with the back of his hand facing the intended viewers of the photo taken of him (he knew that this would end up being viewed by the Nazis, and the English people were in on the irony). Churchill's "V" comes from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 from English Long Bow archers using their index and middle fingers that pulled the cord on the bow and let the arrow fly. The "sod-off" was aimed a the doomed French troops who then fell by hundreds under a hail of English Long Bow arrows.

  15. Avatar for Alex Glenn
    Micheal Holloman
    June 25, 2015 #

    When i was in the Army i was sent to Thailand for Operation Cobra Gold. We found out very quickly not to point with your foot at something in a display case while shopping. The lady would no longer help us and asked us to leave. Its also highly disrespectful to touch the top of a persons head, such as patting a child or to sit cross legged and show the bottom of your feet. Your head is the highest point of the body so is considered the most sacred. And the feet are the lowest point and considered unclean. I always wondered how they get haircuts and pedicures without any offense. lol

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