German gestures aren’t as pronounced as the gestures you might encounter in a more exuberant country like Italy. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Body language is a crucial — albeit nonverbal — part of German communication.
It pays to take the time to learn German gestures before using them on your own. While some German hand gestures carry the same meaning as back home, others are false friends. To help you learn which gestures to avoid and which to try out in your next conversation, we’ve picked the seven most commonly used German gestures. So, get in front of the mirror and practice speaking German with your hands and feet!
- Pressing your thumbs
- Thumbs up
- Shoulder shrug
- Tapping your forehead
- Hand on forehead
- Pulling your lower eyelid
- Forearm jerk
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1. Pressing your thumbs
It seems that Germans most often use body language to express some sort of disagreement. But that isn’t always the case! Pressing your thumbs is one of the rare hand gestures that shows support for someone. To do it, simply extend both fists in front of your body. You can add a quick thumb movement to emphasize that you’re pressing your thumbs, which basically translates to, “I wish you good luck!”
2. Thumbs up
At least since the invention of Facebook, “thumbs up” has become the universal gesture to express agreement or enthusiasm. So, when your friend just aced a test or when you agree with them on a certain point, you can give them a thumbs up. Just hold out your upright fist and stick the thumb up.
You may want to be careful using this gesture in a bar. In Germany, we use the thumb to express the number “one” when counting on our hands. So, if you give the bartender a thumbs up for the cocktail he made, you might have to drink another one.
3. Shoulder shrug
Draw both shoulders up towards your ears. You can also extend your arms to the sides of your body, palms facing up, and accompany the gesture with a pout and a frown. The meaning of this particular form of body language can range from “I don’t know” to “I don’t care.” Use it when you are clueless or when something goes wrong and can’t be remedied. It can express ideas such as “What on earth was he thinking?” or “I don’t know and I couldn’t care less.”
4. Tapping your forehead
If you ever see an unsmiling German tapping their forehead or temple with their index finger, you should feel offended. The gesture means “You are crazy.” It’s often accompanied by a serious facial expression, so as to more clearly communicate that you and your opinion are not worth further discussion. There are some nuances here. If done with a smile between friends, this gesture might even be a compliment. Who doesn’t want to be the crazy friend that is the most fun to be with?
Waving your hand in front of your face has pretty much the same meaning. If you don’t want to offend, face the palm of your hand outwards to turn it into a friendly hello before anyone notices.
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5. Hand on forehead
Timing is everything with this gesture. If someone slowly brings a hand to their forehead and covers part of their brow for a while, they are signaling: “I am so ashamed of what I did or said, and I want to hide.” It’s the classic cringe gesture and can also be used to indicate that someone else has just done something cringe-worthy or disappointing.
A similar gesture brings the opened palm up quickly to the middle of the forehead with an audible slap. Instead of shame, the facepalm expresses amazement, i.e. “I can’t believe how stupid this is.”
6. Pulling your lower eyelid
If your German friend brings their index finger up to their eye and pulls the lower eyelid down, they don’t require medical attention. Though it’s common to try to remove pesky sand and insects by pulling the eyelid down, this gesture also expresses disbelief. Did your boyfriend really not see your text message until the next day? Pull on your lower eyelid if you’re not buying it.
7. Forearm jerk
This is one of the rudest gestures you can make in Germany and a big cultural faux pas. To do it (though it’s best not to), bring your right forearm up, fist clenched, while the left palm slaps your right biceps. This gesture conveys the same message as the middle finger, but on a different scale.
A-okay is not okay in Germany. The round shape you form with your thumb and index finger is a classical false friend. The gesture in German is intended to resemble a part of the other person’s anatomy and means “asshole” (which is a very literal, descriptive word itself). If you want to curse at someone like that, it’s better to learn the words. At least you could mutter them under your breath. Of course, another reason to not use this gesture is that, for a while now, it’s been appropriated as a hate gesture in Germany.
Talking hands and meaningful faces
German nonverbal communication might not be as extensive or as (in)famous as that in other languages. Still, German body language can add a good dose of meaning to spoken words. And, as is the case with false friends in the spoken language, some German gestures can have a very different meaning from what you are used to. In any case, it is wise (and fun) to incorporate German hand gestures into your language learning — just be sure to know which ones to avoid!