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.

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

  1. 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

    • 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!

    • 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.

  2. 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. 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.

  4. 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. manny
    October 14, 2014 #

    This does not sound correct at all

  6. 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.

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