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Hand Gestures Around the World. A presentation on cultural parallels and differences that yield both understanding and misinterpretation. Introduction to Non-Verbal Communication. Non-verbal communication is universal in contrast to spoken language.

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hand gestures around the world

Hand Gestures Around the World

A presentation on cultural parallels and differences that yield both understanding and misinterpretation

introduction to non verbal communication
Introduction to Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication is universal in contrast to spoken language.

Between official and unofficial spoken languages, there are over 5,000 dialects around the world, which leaves a lot of room for misreading.

Experts believe that between 65% - 93% of communication is non-verbal. Body language is rarely misinterpreted.

This includes physical contact and body language, which can be both intentional and unintentional.


Introduction (continued)

Although natural body language is almost universal amongst cultures, hand gestures, despite their ease of apprehension overall, vary in meaning depending on the country.

Gestures of the same appearance exist across many cultures, however the connotation and consequence surrounding them vary.

Due to these cultural inconsistencies, having cultural knowledge of appropriate gestures is a necessity to anyone crossing a geographic line.

similar signs different meanings
Similar Signs, Different Meanings

A look into hand gestures and their meanings for different cultures

consequential misunderstandings
Consequential Misunderstandings

Scenario One:

You’re vacationing in Greece and playing a soccer with a few locals. After your teammate scores a goal, you give your him a thumbs-up to congratulate him.

What did you say to him?

Scenario Two

You’re dining in Germany when a waiter asks how your dish is. You’re chewing and don’t want to be rude, so you give him the “A-Okay” sign.

Why does he storm away in anger?

Because you really just called him an “A**hole.”

You unintentionally said, “Up yours.”


“The best advice to Americans abroad is to keep your hands in your pockets, lest you be gravely misunderstood.”

~ Bill Kaczor, AP

In a worldly perspective, Americans have more positive-oriented hand gestures than most other cultures.

Everyday gestures seen on the streets include waves, beckoning, thumbs-up, and peace signs.

With very little exception, hand gestures within the United States seldom have negative consequence.

  • The quote on the previous page was from an article out of the Los Angeles Times.
  • In an Air Force base in Florida, a captain gives servicemen there a crash course in international body language.
  • In these men’s travels, misinterpretation can cause unnecessary friction or even jeopardize missions:
    • The thumbs-up gesture in the Middle East is an insult
    • The “A-OK” is neutral in Japan, an insult in France, and a homosexual request in Malta

Cultural Gestures

  • Beckoning Finger
    • Beckoning sign, “come here”
  • A-OK Sign
    • Sign of approval or praise
  • “V” Sign
    • With palm out it means “peace”; with palm in it stood for victory, especially around WWII era

Cultural Gestures (cont.)

  • Thumbs-Up
    • Sign of approval
  • Middle Finger
    • General insult, “up yours”
united states vs france similar gestures take on different meanings
United States vs. FranceSimilar gestures take on different meanings

In France, the middle finger takes on the same meaning as it does in the United States. However, the A-OK sign here is also used as an insult meaning “you’re a zero” or “a**hole”. This is a perfect example of why tourists should be careful about using hand gestures while traveling abroad.


In Japan, it is very easy to make a social faux pas. Listening is a necessity in polite conversation, and the way one holds a business card can send either positive or negative messages.

In terms of hand gestures, on the other hand, making social mistakes is much less likely.


Cultural Gestures (Positive or neutral)

  • Thumbs-up
    • “Number One
  • A-OK
    • “Money”
  • Waving Open-palm in front of face
    • “I don’t deserve this” or “I don’t understand”

Cultural Gestures (Negative)

  • Beckoning Finger
    • Reference to dog or animal, offensive gesture
  • Fig Sign
    • General insult meaning “screw you”

Generally speaking, German non-verbal communication is very blunt.

  • A knuckle tap on a table of multiple people is a proper way to greet, while a finger wave is a proper way to bid farewell.
  • Appreciation may be shown by putting clasped hands over one’s head.

However, Germany’s hand gestures make it easier for the culturally unaware to make social blunders.


Cultural Gestures (Positive or neutral)

  • Thumbs-Up
    • “Number One”
  • A-OK Sign (in some parts of Germany)
    • Used to mean “Perfect”

Cultural Gestures (Negative)

  • Middle Finger
    • General insult, “Screw you”, signifies male genitalia
  • Fig Sign
    • Screw you
  • A-OK (some parts of Germany)
    • “A**hole”
    • “Homosexual”

The weight bared by non-verbal means of communication is very high in Italian culture.

Physical contact is more than acceptable, it is commonplace and includes long, firm handshakes, embraces, kisses, etcetera.

The Italian stereotype concerning talking with hands holds very true, for hand gestures are almost never absent from conversation, and misinterpretation is something a tourist would want to avoid.


Cultural Gestures (Positive or neutral)

  • A-OK Sign
    • Used to signify “Perfect” or “Exceptional” in some parts of Italy
  • Thumbs-Up
    • Sign of approval

Cultural Gestures (Negative)

  • Umbrella Gesture
    • “Go to Hell”
  • Under-chin Wipe
    • “I don’t care” or “Screw off”
  • A-OK Sign
    • General insult
  • “V-Sign” (palm in)
    • Female genitalia
three gestures that require cautious use
Three Gestures That Require Cautious Use


Germany – “Number one”

China – Excellent

Japan – Boss or husband

America – Sign of approval

Australia- Sign of approval

Greece – “Up yours”

Middle East – Obscene gesture

three gestures that require cautious use1
Three Gestures That Require Cautious Use

A-OK Sign

America, England – “A-OK”

Japan, China – Money

France – “You’re a zero”

Germany – “A**hole” or “Homosexual

Greece, Spain- Vulgar

three gestures that require cautious use2
Three Gestures That Require Cautious Use

“V” Sign

America – Peace; Victory

England, Nigeria – Vulgar expression signifying female genitalia

Australia, Italy, Ireland - Insult

wrap up
  • Gestures are rarely universal across cultures
  • Make Sure you familiarize yourself with cross-culture gestures if you want to avoid misunderstanding
  • Don’t be culturally ignorant!!!
  • Some gestures, however, are almost universal- so use common sense!
don t be that guy or politician
Don’t Be That Guy… Or Politician

The middle finger is a universal gesture in most cultures.


Works Cited


Chen, Guo-Ming. Foundations of Intercultural Communication. Needham Height, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1998. Print.

Benthall & Polhemus, . The Body as a Medium of Expression. USA: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1975. Print.



http://books.google.com/books?id=GbsNAAAAQAAJ&lpg=PA207&ots=kh6HeRkroj&dq=Morris%20 Collette%20Marsh%20O'Shaughnessy&pg=PA207#v=onepage&q=&f=false

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