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Cultural Differences in Gestures

Updated April 17, 2017

As travellers to foreign countries have realised, gestures we use in everyday life are completely different between cultures. The thumbs-up, for example, is a common way to say "OK" in western societies, but it is offensive when used in Iran. Tradition, religion and historical facts have contributed to the different interpretations of similar gestures, leading to misunderstandings between people from different cultures. The number of gestures with different meanings is vast; however, they can be grouped into four major categories.

Numbers

The gestures used to show small numbers is similar in most cultures, but in some cases, an innocent sign can lead to serious misunderstandings. Pointing your index and middle finger with the palm facing inward is insulting in the United Kingdom and Australia, being a similar gesture to the middle finger, while doing the same pointing the palm outwards is offensive in Greece. Pointing an open palm to show the number five in Greece is a common offensive gesture called "mountza."

Signalling

In the U.S., simple gestures are used to signal that everything is all right, as well as for hitchhiking or to point at someone. The same gestures are considered offensive in other cultures. The "A-OK" sign, forming an "O" with the thumb and index finger, is offensive for Germans and Brazilians, who will think you are referring to their anuses. In similar fashion, a thumbs-up is similar to the middle finger in Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, it is impolite to point with the index finger in the countries of the Middle and Far East.

Head Movements

Contrary to hand gestures, head movements are not likely to get you into trouble in a foreign country, but they can lead to misunderstandings. Nodding is a common gesture to express acceptance or acknowledgement. Indians do the head bobble to express acknowledgement. Shaking the head means disagreement. However, in Bulgaria and Greece, a nod upwards means "No," while in the latter, "Yes" is expressed with a quick nod downward.

Etiquette For Touching Others

The etiquette for physical contact varies by culture. In Buddhist societies of the Far East, the head is considered the repository of the soul, and an innocent pat on a child's head can be uncomfortable at the least. In addition, men from Middle Eastern countries are likely to hold hands in public as a sign of mutual respect, while the same gestured would be perceived as a sign of homosexuality or femininity in other cultures.

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About the Author

Tasos Vossos has been a professional journalist since 2008. He has previously worked as a staff writer for "Eleftheros Tipos," a leading newspaper of Greece, and is currently a London-based sports reporter for Perform Sports Media in the United Kingdom. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in communication and media from the University of Athens.