In Western culture, the thumbs up sign is regarded as a positive gesture. It means that everything is A-OK and that the person who is giving you the signal approves of whatever is going on. It’s a friendly, supportive and positive gesture and it’s even used in social media to represent when you “like” something. It has even become a part of our language – when someone approves of something you might say that they gave it “the thumbs up.” However, in different cultures the thumbs up hand gestures are not a friendly sign at all. In fact, it is a very negative one!
Hand Gestures in Different Cultures
In Iran, Afghanistan and parts of Italy, this gesture is regarded as obscene. It is equivalent to what giving the middle finger signifies in North America and most of Europe. It also has an offensive meaning in Greece and parts of West Africa. It basically means “up yours” or can even mean, “sit on my thumb.”
This can lead to a lot of confusion while travelling. For example, in this blog a traveller at a market in Iran gave a thumbs up signal to indicate that he was happy with the price of the item the vendor had quoted him.
However, to the vendor it seemed like he was telling him to stick the price where the sun don’t shine. The complete opposite meaning was conveyed, which can be a real disaster when travelling!
You don’t want to be misunderstood and make people needlessly upset, so make sure that you understand the meaning of the hand gestures you are using when travelling. It’s sometimes surprising to learn what gestures can be offensive in different cultures, because they are regarded as so harmless in our culture.
For example, crossing your fingers for good luck is a positive gesture in the Western world, but in Vietnam it is a major cultural faux pas. It is thought to resemble the female genitals and it is a very crude hand symbol, so it would be a very inappropriate one to use in public.
Of course, many people in these different cultures will understand that you are a foreigner and that the thumbs up sign means something different to you. They will likely recognise the positive connotation of this hand signal due to exposure to international television and movies.
Some other different cultures perceive this hand signal differently, but not necessarily in a negative way. In Germany, Hungary and France the gesture can represent the number one, depending on the context. In Finland the gesture can mean “good luck.” If you aren’t sure, here is a handy chart that explains potentially offensive gestures in a range of countries around the world. Study it before you go anywhere, so that you don’t accidentally put your foot in your mouth with the wrong hand gesture!