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.

Check out:  7 Tricks for Car Camping in Comfort

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.

Travel hacks | Destinations

about Alex

As copywriter for Esurance, Alex had professional experience in everything from film to literature to (thanklessly!) correcting the grammar in friends' emails. As a fervent Minnesota sports fan, he spends most of his non-writing time gently weeping into cereal bowls.