International Hand Gestures and Their Meanings

We all know verbal languages vary hugely in different countries. But did you know body language has a broad spectrum of meanings across the globe, too? What might be a simple symbol of ‘hello’ in your country could mean something entirely different somewhere you’re visiting. And depending on where you’re travelling, accidentally sending the wrong message could mean wining up in some serious trouble! To avoid offending the locals, being misunderstood or possibly ending up in prison, here are some international hand gestures and their meanings in different countries.

What international hand gestures mean around the world


International Hand Gestures
For most cultures, this gesture means ‘okay’

In the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, this harmless gesture means everything is okay.

But in Brazil, making this gesture upside down is offensive. It’s the equivalent of giving someone the finger.

Japanese use this sign for money, while the French use it as an insulting way to tell someone they’re worth nothing.

Thumbs up

International Hand Gestures
Make this sign in Latin America and it might not mean what you think

In the UK, USA, Canada, AustraliaNew Zealand and Russia, giving someone the thumbs up is similar to the ‘okay’ gesture above, but more positive. It’s usually given as a sign of approval for a job well done or used when thanking someone.

This positive gesture has a totally different meaning in Latin America, West Africa, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. In these countries, it’s more along the lines of ‘up yours’. Although most of the world is familiar with it being a positive sign; you run the risk of offending people if you use it in more remote and rural places.

V sign

International Hand Gestures
Be careful which way around you hold your hand

When given with the palm facing forward (like on the left), this symbol means peace in the USA.

But turn the international hand gestures around so the palm is facing inward (like on the right) and this sign becomes an insulting way of telling someone to ‘back off’ or ‘go away’ in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland.

L sign

International Hand Gestures
This means something totally different in China. Image via Flickr: Mike Atkinson, CC BY-NC 2.0

In the USA, making a capital L shape with your fingers, especially if you hold it over your forehead, is a way of calling someone a loser.

If you’re travelling in China and see a street food vendor make this sign at you, don’t think they’re being insulting. They’re telling you the price – this is their way of indicating the number 8. It comes from 10 total fingers – 2 fingers = 8 fingers.

Come here

Think about which way your palm’s facing

Holding this international hand gesture like this and opening and closing your fingers in a rolling fashion indicates the message ‘come here’ in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and the UK.

But in some countries, such as the Philippinesbeckoning someone this way is considered highly offensive and used only to call dogs.

The opposite motion (turning your palm to face the floor and flicking your fingers open and closed) is a way of telling people to ‘go away’ in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and the UK.

While in the Philippines, Vietnam, India and Ghana, it means the opposite – it means ‘come here’!

About Nicola Quinn


Nicola is a travel and food writer living in the Canary Islands who loves exploring far-off places, pushing herself to the limit and trying local eats wherever she goes.

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