Language is one of the most curious human inventions, but what can you tell about gestures? Yes, body language has its own quirks, history and even geographical distribution. What might seem like a harmless joke in one region of the world can be extremely insulting in another. No idea what we’re talking about? Check out these 15 offensive gestures and body language in different cultutures and let us know about your own culture!
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The most common disrespectful gestures in different cultures
1. The middle finger.
A classic in Western culture, the middle finger tells somebody to go take a hike. Other synonyms for this gesture are “giving someone the bird”, “giving someone the finger” or “flipping someone off”. You might be surprised to find that it has its origins in Ancient Greece and was already used in Ancient Rome in an offensive way, since it looks so much like male genitalia. Since then, it has become an international symbol of rebellion, refusal and discontent.
2. The thumbs-up
Mindlessly giving somebody a thumbs-up in Greece, Iran, Russia, Sardinia and parts of West Africa could get you in trouble! There, a thumbs-up is synonymous with giving somebody the middle finger. However, this is one of the most versatile signs around the world. In most countries it’s a sign of approval and happiness, while in others the thumb is used as a representation of the number 1 when counting…or even for hitchhiking!
3. The a-ok
You might think you’re showing your appreciation or acting like a professional scuba diver using this sign, but it’s clever to read the room first. You could accidentally accuse somebody of being a failure (in middle and southern Europe, for instance, since the symbol could be interpreted as “zero”) or even symbolizing an unpleasant part of the body while attacking the other person’s sexuality (in Brazil, Turkey and Venezuela).
4. The fig
Playing “got your nose!” with a child? Make sure you’re not doing it in Turkey, Greece, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Slavic countries in general! This gesture is incredibly insulting, because it symbolizes a sexual act. It’s thought to have had its origins in ancient Indian culture and has been around since Ancient Rome. Curiously, the gesture was initially a way to keep bad luck away from the family!
5. The arm of honour
This “arm of honour” is iconic in Romance-speaking Europe (Italy, France, Portugal, Spain), Latin America, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, Georgia, Québec, Ireland and parts of Scotland. If you haven’t seen it before, know that it’s the equivalent to the middle finger! The good part? You’re unlikely to do it accidentally, since it takes both arms and some coordination to get it done!
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6. The horns
In Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Brazil as well as the Baltics, you’re smart to avoid this gesture…especially if you point it at someone! By using it, you’re telling the target person that their partner is cheating on them and that everybody knows, therefore offending their partner. You might be wondering whether doing it at a rock concert would be offensive. The answer is no! People do it anyway, because context is everything.
7. The moutza
Have you ever given someone “the hand” when they’re talking about something you don’t care about? A very similar gesture is the most traditional insult in Greece. Not only does it signify that you’ll smear the other person’s face with cinder, but it can also be magnified by performing a double moutza using both hands overlapping each other.
8. The forks
The English-speaking world has given us a creative twist on the peace sign called “the forks” or “two-fingered salute”. It’s an offensive gesture in Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Ireland. It’s the same as giving somebody the middle finger. Thought to have had its origins in 15th-century England, the insulting V sign remains a sign of defiance in the face of authority and contempt.
9. The loser sign
The shape of an L on your forehead means you’re calling somebody else a loser. Popular in the United States in the 1990s due to a couple of movies (namely Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Sandlot) and the song “All Star” by Smash Mouth (1999), it seems fairly innocent…but know that it’s an insult if it’s directed at you! You’re likely to find this gesture in pop culture.
10. Pointing directly at someone
Yes: many cultures around the world consider it rude to point at someone. Some countries, however, take it more seriously than others. In Cambodia and Malaysia, pointing with your index finger is considered extremely rude. People either try pointing with two fingers, with their thumbs or with the whole hand.
11. Calling someone by curling your finger
This may seem playful in Europe and North America, but do the same in the Philippines and you might see some angry faces. In the region, curling the index finger is used to call dogs only. This means doing the same for humans in this culture is quite demeaning and offensive body language. If you’re trying to call somebody, use your entire hand or arm to make your intention known.
12. Fingers crossed
Crossing fingers might be one of the most complex gestures invented by humanity. Why? In some contexts, it can mean you’re lying (especially if you cross your fingers behind your back). In other contexts, it can mean you’re rooting for someone to be successful (hence the expression “Fingers crossed!”). But in Vietnam, it means something else entirely: you’re insulting someone by simulating female genitals, not wishing them luck. Yikes!
13. Receiving gifts with one hand / your left hand
When receiving a gift in China, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, use both hands to receive a gift. This shows you’re fully invested in the moment and care about the other person’s kind gesture. If you use only one hand, that might be perceived as careless, rude or entitled. In India and the Middle East, make sure you use either both hands or your right hand only, as the left hand is typically seen as the dirty one.
14. Touching someone’s head
Touching a stranger’s head is risky anywhere. However, make sure you avoid it especially in countries with large Buddhist populations like Cambodia, China, Laos and Thailand. These cultures perceive the head as the most sacred part of our bodies. What most tourists fail to consider is that touching statues’ heads is equally offensive, so double-check your pose before your next touristy picture!
15. The “you have five fathers”
The Middle East gave us one of the most complex offensive gestures, involving both hands and quite a lot of demonstration. If, for some reason, you’d like to offend somebody’s mother by implying she’s had some fun with several men in the past, this is your go-to sign…but it’s better if you don’t! If things go south, this gesture could get you deported or even worse, especially if you do it in Saudi Arabia. Some Caribbean countries also use it. Good thing it’s not that easy to do it accidentally!
What other gestures do you know that would be offensive in your culture but seem harmless abroad (and vice versa)? What stories can you tell about misunderstandings and accidental insults? We’re all ears on Lingoda’s Twitter and Instagram accounts!