International Body Language, Gestures & Manners: Don’t Be “That Guy!”

dork3.jpgWhen you travel, you may think that if you don’t know the language, you can just communicate using gestures. BZZT! Knowing what gestures and body language mean in foreign countries can mean the difference between making friends and getting beaten up and it’s all too easy to make mistakes.

Take the quiz to find out how much you know about body language, gestures and foreign customs:

okaysymbolWhat does this symbol mean?

  1. all right
  2. zero
  3. money
  4. unmentionable orifice

This is a trick question, as this symbol means all of these things. In the U.S. (and other places), it means “all right,” in Japan it means “money,” in France it means “zero,” and in Brazil it means the “unmentionable orifice”, literally.See this cute little video showing gestures like this.

cornaOk, how about this symbol? Does it mean:

  1. “I love you” in sign language, silly.
  2. “Goat” in sign language.
  3. The sign of the devil, man, aren’t we at a Black Sabbath concert?
  4. A sign to ward off evil spirits.

This is a trick question. The symbol, called the corna, is both a heavy metal symbol and a way to ward off bad luck. Bonus trivia: Ronnie James Dio is credited as making this symbol popular among heavy metal fans. Growing up in an Italian family, he saw his gramma making this symbol to ward off the evil eye. When Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne, (who used the peace symbol in concert) in Black Sabbath, he wanted his own symbol, so he started using the corna.NOTE: Blog visitor Fishy told me that this symbol also means “bullsh*t” in American Sign Language!

guycrossleggedThis fellow is doing something offensive to Muslims or the Thai. What is he doing wrong?

  1. His overuse of aftershave is offensive to anyone.
  2. He’s wearing socks.
  3. He’s pointing at his head with an object.
  4. His leg is crossed and the sole of his foot is exposed.

It’s #4. In middle eastern countries and Thailand, the foot is considered the lowest part of the body, physically as well as spiritually. This man is exposing his foot to those around him, and is pointing his foot at the person to his right.

mealYou are eating dinner in Pakistan, and use your left hand to reach for another piece of bread. Your host looks offended! What have you done wrong?

  1. You’ve served yourself, you should always wait and be asked if you want more.
  2. You wanted seconds, you greedy pig!
  3. You used your left hand.
  4. You are wearing nail polish which offends them.

It’s not that you went to get more food, but that you used your left hand. In many middle-eastern countries, the left hand is seen as “unclean” as it is used to wash your private areas (instead of toilet paper). As you might guess, “lefties” have a hard time over there.

tongueout2You get off the plane in Tibet, expecting a nice relaxing vacation, and a Tibetan native makes this face at you. What the heck?

  1. You’re being Punk’d.
  2. You got in the middle of a spitting fight.
  3. You are being greeted.
  4. You’ve met the village idiot.

#3: In some parts of Tibet, sticking your tongue out is a friendly greeting! I think I like Tibet.

maasaiYou are in Kenya, and an old woman spits on the top of your head. What’s going on?

  1. She just saved your life! There was a malaria mosquito on your head and she drowned it.
  2. She was giving you a blessing.
  3. The spit is part of the curse she just placed on you.
  4. It is part of a marriage ceremony.

#2: In the Maasai tribe of Kenya, spitting on the head is a form of blessing (this is an old custom that is fading away). What is still common though, is the older person of two meeting spitting on their hand before shaking hands -thereby transferring the goodness of their spirit in saliva as a blessing to the other. Eew.

thumbsup2You are eating a meal the middle east, and your host asks how you like your food. Your mouth is full, so you give him a “thumbs up.” He stalks away from the table. What happened?

  1. You didn’t answer fast enough.
  2. He’s going to get you more food.
  3. You did the equivalent of flipping him the bird.
  4. His mother was calling.

Although “thumbs up” symbol means “ok,” or “good,” in the U.S. in parts of the Middle East, it means you want to have sexual relations with the person you’re giving the thumbs up to. I guess someone had better tell all the soldiers giving the thumbs up all over Iraq, huh?NOTE: although my research for this article said that the thumbs up gesture was obscene in Greece, several Greeks have commented to say this wasn’t so! I’m going to go with the natives’ opinion!

taxiYou flag down a cab in Australia, and hop in the back. You try to make pleasant chat with the driver, but he seems angry. What’s going on?

  1. Don’t take it personally, cabbies are known to be gruff in Australia.
  2. He’s not really a cabbie, you’ve just been picked up by a serial killer posing as a cabbie. Run!
  3. You insulted him by getting in the back.
  4. You’re not supposed to talk to the cabbies.

It’s #3: In the United States, people hop in the back of the cab. But Australians pride themselves on everyone being equals, so you’ve just insulted the cabbie by hopping in the back instead of getting in the front with him!

Are there any universal gestures? So far the only ones seems to be the smile.Some sources for this article:Gay Thailand Orville Jenkins (Africa)Language Trainers

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  1. The Flying Critic Says:

    Travel Tip: Learn the local customs and etiquette of foreign countries before you go

    You don’t want to embarrass yourself or ruin a deal in a foreign country because you made the wrong gesture or broke an important social custom. The Eclectic Rebel Travel Blog and Directory just posted an informative article on International Body Lang…

  2. Andreia Says:

    i’m from Brazil. and the first Symbol really means that here. I’m surprised that the other countries relates it with other meaning.

    especially money.. hehehehe


  3. Panda Bears Says:

    Very interesting article – I’ll make sure I study up on local customs next time I travel abroad!

  4. Andreas Says:

    Ermm a note about the thumbs up one,,i dont know where you got it from …or if you live in space..or never been outside your home…
    thumbs up means thumbs up…doent matter if you are in Greece or in the US. It is not offensive at all…thumbs up means thumbs up,,,the middle finger is offensive as in the US…so i think u should change that be cause…its dead wrong!!…

  5. Craig Says:

    Actually, when I was in Australia cab drivers didn’t make a big deal about the “you got in back” thing, since they know that’s the way it’s done in most of the world. They do encourage you to sit in the front, though. Had a cabbie at Sydney Airport jump out before I could get in, pop my suitcase in the boot, then open the front passenger door for me – a nice, subtle way of introducing foreigners to the local custom.

  6. Charlene Jaszewski Says:

    Hi Andreas – it’s good to know the thumbs up is not as offensive as I’ve heard it to be! Maybe things are changing…

  7. Charlene Jaszewski Says:

    HI Craig! Thanks for visiting! I think I would love Australia…I personally would prefer to sit up front with the cabbie! I always feel weird trying to have a nice conversation with the driver while hiding in the back!

  8. thanos Says:

    I am Greek and hell no i do not agree with the greek part, its completely wrong, that means also ok in Greece, so judging from what I know, I wouldnt pay serious attention to the site

  9. Thanos Says:

    I’m Greek and i can positively assure you that the thumbs up gesture means nothing like you describe. It’s actually a thumbs up or a generally appreciative gesture. We do use the middle finger when we want to…give the finger :-)
    And no, things are not changing. It has never been the other way around.

  10. Paraskevi Says:

    Extremely wrong about the Greek thing!!! It means ok here (Greece).

  11. Paraskevi Says:

    Perhaps you were confusing it with waving the palm of the hand at someone, that can be viewed as extremely offensive (the equivalent of giving someone the finger) if you do it in a certain way…

  12. Charlene Jaszewski Says:

    Thanks Thanos and Paraskevi for letting me know that my research was incorrect. I had seen in several places around the web that the thumbs up was obscene in Greece! But I will believe you locals on this!

  13. Chris Says:

    I have been recently been to Pakistan and have many close Pakistani friends, when I mentioned the “never reach with your left hand” item listed above, they said that (and I quote) “Only crazy fanatics would be offended by that” :o ) They said your reasoning was correct (they do clean with one hand not TP), but that you are supposed to WASH your hands afterwards! Just thought you might want to know.

  14. mikwe Says:

    Nonsense about australian cab drivers, in sydney most of them can’t speak english therefore no point in sitting in front if you want to chat. Aussie cabs are probably the worst in the world and the most expensive, cheap fords with the driver taking up all the room, if you want the a/c on they moan. The worst thing is when they give you the facts about their city/town/country, an example is the melbourne driver who assured me that there was a restaurant for every country in the world in the city, when I asked him how many countries there are in the world he didn’t have a clue.

  15. Fishy Says:

    FYI—the first sign also means the letter S in Spanish sign language…. and in fact the 2nd foto means BULL SHIT in American Sign Language (ASL) not I love you. You will offend any Deaf people you know (although I’m not sure about any deaf people you know).

  16. Charlene Jaszewski Says:

    Fishy – the answers listed in number form are options to choose from for a quiz! But thanks for letting me know about the Bullshit! I’ll add it to the post.

  17. jjohns63 Says:

    The second one is not bullshit in ASL, there’s more to the sign, particularly making the motion of the pig shitting with your other hand, perhaps you should look things up before you trust a random commenter

  18. Jason Says:

    While I’d go ahead and say that I’ll agree with the locals of Greece about the thumbs up gesture not being obscene in Greece, I am currently starting a study abroad program and have had a meeting about “what not to do while abroad”. While I do not have any concrete evidence on what the gesture means, I was told repeatedly not to use the thumbs up gesture without discretion. All the same, it could be an urban myth.

  19. Ryan Says:

    Fishy is only partially right (i.e. totally wrong.) The ASL for B.S. involves the other hand, as jjohns63 pointed out. (Although it’s a bull, not a pig…) However, the I love you sign does require the use of the thumb. If what Fishy said were true, I can’t imagine how strange a Dio concert would be for the deaf…(?!?)

  20. Axial Sage Says:

    Yeah, i just wanted to say that the whole “Thumbs up” thing about middle eastern finding it to be a sign of “Sexual intercourse” is wrong… the thumbs up has only one meaning in the middle east and that is “Ok!”.

    I’m a middle eastern, so i would know.

  21. greghousesgf Says:

    Smiles aren’t even universal. In some Asian cultures, people smile when very nervous, not when they’re happy.

  22. PeteY Says:

    I think Mikwe has had a bad run of cabbies. Yes a lot of cabbies in Sydney are from multi-cultural backgrounds, but most are friendly and enjoy a good chat regardless of linguistic abilities. The Aussie Fords (Falcon- Think of it as a Ford Crown Victoria but more modern) they use are quite large and I cant see how the cabbie can take up all the space.

    I agree with Charlene (a very Aussie name BTW), Aussie’s do pride themselves on a classless society where everybody is equal, although xenophobia does exist within our culture. Particularly amongst the older generation Australians (regardless of race or religion) and certain website commenters.

    For an Aussie, it does feel weird riding in the back seat if I’m the only one riding with the cabbie.

  23. Teena Osorio Says:

    interesting post…and i learned more in the comments…is it possible if you could publish more like this? thanks…and please do visit our site…

  24. Menni Says:

    greghousesgf is absolutely right. Japanese people smile as a reaction to either disgust or fear (and especially when embarrassed) to not offend the host or guest by showing negative emotions.

  25. Charlene Jaszewski Says:

    greghousessf and Menni: well at least the smile isn’t going likely to be misunderstood in another country as something obscene, was my point (seems like many other gestures have that risk).

  26. Shelli Says:

    In China the “OK” symbol looks like the way they count 3.
    To show 1, we hold our index finger in America, in China, they hold out their thumb. 2 is Thumb and 2nd finger.. 3 looks just like OK. I was trying to order Cheesecake for my daughter in the airport in Hong Kong and I held up the “OK” sign and almost got 3 pieces of Cheesecake by mistake!!! :)

  27. Rachael Says:

    When I was visiting a small village in Turkey, I started trying to play the “I’ve got your nose” game with some small kids with the basic Turkish I knew. They found it absolutely hilarious…because apparently if you insert your thumb through your first two fingers and make a fist, like in that game, it’s a nasty sexual meaning. As is taking a flat fist and bopping it on top of your closed other fist. Who knew?!

  28. Anirban Sen Says:

    I am from India, and specifically Bengal. With regard to the thumb up, I remember my grandmom teaching me it meant “I got nothing” or “I am jacked”. Later, with the spread of the media, virtually no one remembers this, except some 75 years old plus gentlemen I’ve seen. The youth recognizes the now universal thumbs up sign.
    If anyone gives something with the left hand, it would be considered bad manners (for the reasons you described)- although the media has changed this too and the young generations are less sensitive to this concept.

  29. jansuza Says:

    Seriously dude, have you ever been out of the house or did you just dream these up?

    ‘you are in africa, and someone spits on your head’ or ‘the Masai tribe of Africa’

    Yeah, all of us here in Africa are just one big happy family, there’s no differences between us at all. Next time, do a little bit of research and write the Masai tribe of Kenya, or write in such a way that at least gives the appearance that you know what you’re talking about.

  30. Charlene Jaszewski Says:

    jansuza: Damn. i AM “that guy.” apologies for overlooking that vagueness.

  31. alex Says:

    i liked this, it was very quirky and interesting. thank you :)

  32. Susana Says:

    The goat/evil eye/whatever symbol is also considered very rude in Spain. It means that a person’s significant other is cheating on them.

  33. TheMystical Says:

    Where I come from the corna (horns) gesture has also the same meaning as Susana said, your partner is cheating on you.

  34. Martijn Says:

    Actually, it is not just the smile which is universal. There are about six emotions which are recognised all over the world. Besides being happy (the smile) these include: sadness, anger, disgust, fear and surprise. Maybe there not signs in the strict sense, but almost everyone can recognise the accompanying facial expression.

  35. Kenyan Says:

    If you go to kenya aaaaand go to the Maasai village aaaand want the whole traditional thing, then maybe you may get “spat” on.
    Other tribes as mentioned earlier use spitting gestures i.e. spitting on clothes, shoulders or over your head as various gestures of blessing or greeting.
    and yeah AFRICA is not one large country and neither are the people of kenya all the same. Infact I am from kenya and NEVER been “spat” on.
    good list tho’

  36. harris Says:

    As a greek I feel obliged to aggree with the above. Thumbs-up is a thumbs-up and not a sex gestures here :D
    Just for the record, the I-want-to-have-sex-with-you gesture(if only) is raising all fingers to full height and the middle finger to middle-height [ok i didn't describe that well, but you get the point].
    However,most times it’s used in the same way as it’s opposite (only raising middle finger) so it’s not advised :D

  37. Stormz Says:

    Aussie cabs (taxi’s) I wouldn’t ride in front and they don’t get offended if u ride in back, being an aussie in perth where at one point a serial killer was suspected as being a taxi driver, it’s not likely that i’d jump in a cab at all, much less in front.. :)

    But I have to say I do see aussie cabbies jumpin out and helping with groceries and such and then helping people into the cab.. (not all just some) I’m glad to see it’s still around… oh for those that don’t know, I mean courtesy. :)

  38. John Says:

    Aussie cabs, you should always ride in the front. And talk to the driver, if he likes you he will do sneaky cab shit to save you fare. And always tip something

    btw what mikwe said was hilarious! rofl
    personally I’m refering to Melbourne cabs. Sydney and Brisbane cabbies can be real a/holes

  39. katie Says:

    i lived in southern india for a while and the thumbs up was seen as something very american. it’s not that people don’t do it, they just see it as an american thing. when my group was photographed for a newspaper story they kept telling us to “be american” “do something american”, we finally figured out that they wanted us to give a thumbs up.

  40. Jimbob Says:

    The bull horns/ goat/ evil eye thing also mean your significant other is cheating on you in France and Italy.

  41. ibswole Says:

    Uhm … Getting in the back isn’t disrespectfull in australia , making crap up is.

  42. Lisa Says:

    Screw it. The world is a global village. The best way to learn the world is to be yourself in it.

  43. Squigs Says:

    I may be wrong, but from my limited knowledge of sign language, the corna doesn’t mean bullsh*t, unless you make the corna with your right hand, holding it above your left arm at a 45 degree angle, and and wiggling your left fingers under your right elbow.

  44. Aba Says:

    The Corna sign means “bull” or “cow” in American Sign Language unless you thrust it towards the person, and then it becomes “bullshit”.

  45. The Atlanta Traveler Says:

    Ok. Yes. Signals can get you in trouble.

  46. Pokin Says:

    Great post! I learned something new with this. Love some of the example pictures :)

  47. Eric Says:

    Oh I’m so pleased to learn that Tibetans stick their tongue out to great you! How did we get stuck with simple handshakes? Making faces would be so much more fun – imagine CEOs doing this to each other when appearing on the news to announce some sort of partnership, or players at the end of a hockey game – ahhh that be great.

  48. gWallet Says:

    Sign me up for the corporate retreat in Tibet please! :)

    gWallets last blog post..GoLive2 goes live with Stix compatible MMO Racing Game

  49. Brisbane web design Says:

    That one about the Australian cab is sooo true. You can sit in the back if:

    1. There’s someone with you
    2. You’re wearing an expensive suit (make sure to tip)
    3. You have bad body odour

  50. The ABCs Of International Business Etiquette | Taking off Travel blog Says:

    [...] is one of the most important. Appearance includes items such as your clothing, body language and gestures. For example, it’s important to know whether your new business colleagues will expect you to [...]

  51. TAimur Says:

    the “You are eating dinner in Pakistan”, thats true but for india aswell, be careful.