7 Gestures You Might Want to Avoid in Other Countries

The more I travel around the world, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. Each and every day while being on the road life seems to teach me new lessons in regards to different cultures, lifestyle, people and completely new and distinct ways of thinking.

Traveling and having the opportunity to interact with countless individuals on a personal and professional level from all different cultures, ages and lifestyles has changed me from the inside out and has completely transformed the lens in which I see the world and the people in it.

Over the last 5 years that I have been living and working abroad, I have immersed myself completely into the cultures that I have visited and have studied the ends and outs of communication, with a special emphasis on non verbal and intercultural communication.

As of now, I have visited almost 100 countries completely alone, speaking at conferences, seminars and life coaching individuals who seek to reach the next level in their personal and professional life.

Throughout all of my travels, I have learned the power of communication and how it can be such a powerful tool to connect us and absolutely transform the world.

At the same time, I have also seen how much communication varies across cultures, especially in terms of non verbal communication and the gestures that we use in our day to day lives.

In this article I wanted to dive deeper into the topic of the gestures that we are used to using each day and talk about some of the very interesting lessons that I have learned in reference to this while traveling across the world.

Focusing and learning more about our gestures and how they are interpreted across cultures could save all of us a world of problems while traveling abroad.

10 Gestures that is important to know when traveling and doing working internationally:

1. Direct Eye Contact

Growing up playing sports I was taught on a daily basis the importance of respect for adults and the importance of never losing eye contact when someone is speaking, especially an adult. Having had this drilled into my head from an early age, its quite difficult to not look at someone directly in the eye, no matter who they are.

However, while traveling in the Middle East I quickly learned a cultural norm, which is not applicable in every situation, but is a good rule to follow if you don’t know exactly what to do, and that is not making direct eye contact for periods of time with someone from the oposite sex.

This all depends on where you are and the type of environment that you are in. Of course, if you are with friends and the environment is relaxed, then there is no problem in most cases. However, if you are a complete stranger, the environment is a bit intense and the people there tend to be more traditional, then its better to focus your attention in connecting, talking and making eye contact with just the women.

Eye contact can come across very flirtatious and can be completely interpreted in the wrong way in many cultures, including America. It can be an issue as well if you are making eye contact with a man who has a wife by his side, even if you have no wrong intentions. Not in all cases, but this could be uncomfortable and insulting to the woman.

I write this one as #1 based on personal experience. Like I said, you could just be just a friendly person and have no flirtatious intentions, but in some cultures more than others, this can be portrayed completely the wrong way.

Also, in reference to looking at others directly in the eyes, in Latin America, and even parts of Asia, I learned that looking at an adult that you respect in the eyes is a sign of disrespect. In many of these countries the children grow up learning to not look their teachers or elders in the eyes in order to show them the respect that they deserve.

However, it’s even aplicable for many adults who are in the workforce. They are taught to have high respect and courtesy for their boss, and one of the ways of showing that is by not making eye contact at any given point with him or her.

I grew up learning that if you do not make eye contact that you are most likely lying or trying to hide something. In law enforcement they pay special attention to the victims eyes, their movement, eye contact and these can lead officials believe that a person is telling the truth or not. With that being the case, I tend to make eye contact with anyone that I am speaking with, whether it be a teacher, boss or high authority.

I just say that a good rule of thumb is to be careful with your eye contact in very unfamiliar settings and you should be just fine.

2. Thumbs Up

Ever since I was a young, I have been using the thumbs up gesture. It’s something that I have used over the years while playing sports and a gesture that others have shown to me when I have done a good job.  Without even saying a word, the thumbs up sign has given me a sense of security in many situations and the confidence to know that I am on the right path and doing a great job.

However, the thumbs up is not always interpreted in other parts of the world like it is in the USA.

For example, in many parts of the Middle East, South America and parts of Africa this gesture is what people would use to say “up yours!”

This can be especially tricky for those who travel across the world by hitchhiking, because your friendly sign showing that you want a ride can come across as very offensive in many countries.

I actually learned this while in the car with someone that picked me up on the side of the road on my wild hitchhiking adventure years ago when I started traveling.

It may seem silly, but there are people out there that literally take these things seriously.

3. Peace Sign

When I visited Asia the first time, especially in countries like South Korea, I quickly learned their love for the peace sign. It’s very common in many Asian countries to show it and for many countries, including the USA and most Western countries, it’s absolutely harmless.

However, when giving that friendly sign, it’s important to not turn the finger around the other way because just a slight tilt of the hand in countries like Ireland, England and Australia would be the same as giving someone the middle finger.

4. OK Sign

“Everything is A- OK!”

This phrase, combined with the OK hand sign, is something that I have used and continue to use when nonverbally communicating with people from around the world.  It’s another one of those signs of approval to show that you are doing a good job with what you are doing, whether it be in school, work, sports etc.

Also, for those scuba divers out there, like myself, it’s the sign that you show while underwater to tell your dive partner that everything is good and you have no sort of stress or problems.

I learned this while being in Brazil during the few weeks that I was there during the Rio Carnival in Rio de Janiero. To my shock, I found out that the OK sign is anything but approving for the Brazilian people. Although you may do it with a good intention, others can interpret it as you if you are calling them an asshole.

When I was studying about non verbal communication and gestures before around my trip through Brazil, I came across an article that was talking about how in 1950 Richard Nixon went to Brazil and gave the OK sign and everyone booed him and showed high disapproval of his gesture.

This is a perfect example of a national world leader, that obviously meant no harm, but in the end he ruined his image with people by just one small gesture of the hand.

This is also very offensive in Turkey. If you make the OK sign with your hand you can maybe assume why it may be somewhat offensive no? If not, think harder and maybe you can figure it out. In Turkey this gesture is used to tell to someone that they are homosexual.

Hint: OK with the hand looks like a butt hole, which is where the insult comes from.

5. Horns

This is the classic sign that many Americans use if they are into heavy metal music. This is the sign that shows “ROCK ON MAN!” I personally have never used this sign, but growing up I have seen many people make that sign as the “cool thing” to do.

To my surprise, I found out that this is quite offensive in many countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Portugal and even Spain.

I will admit, I have lived many years in Spain and have never heard of any Spanish person talk about this as being an insult. However, from what others have explained, it really depends on which part of the country that you are in and the context in which you use the gesture.

If you uses the horns with a happy face in one of these countries, it most likely will not be a problem. However, if you show it with a face of disapproval, then this could be interpreted as “your significant other is cheating on you and you are too dumb and ridiculous to realize that is happening.”

I have to admit, when I learned about this gesture it made me laugh because I have never seen or heard of anyone these days with with any problems using this gesture, but that is not to say that it does not come across as offensive in different parts of these countries.

6. Crossed Legs

Most of the time when we are sitting in a chair with our friends or in a meeting we don’t even pay attention to how we are positioned. Most of us change positions multiple times in one single meeting without it even crossing our minds. However, if you start working in other countries, such as the Middle East, India or even Japan, it’s important to pay attention to how you sit.

If you are in a meeting or sitting with your legs crossed in the presence of someone that is older than you in Japan, this can come across as very insulting for that person.  Along the same lines, in the Middle East and Asia, it’s very offensive to cross your legs to where the other people can see the soles of your shoes.

During my visit to the south of India, I learned this lesson the hard way. I had absolutely no idea years ago that showing your sole was offensive to them. During my 10 day mediation/silent retreat, I was sitting with others with my legs crossed and my sole showing.

Obviously I did not do this to offend anyone, but it was something that I was pulled aside and told to never do. Although it was an innocent mistake, I was given unfriendly faces during the rest of my stay by the person that I had offended, even though I never did it again after being called out.

7.  Calling Someone with Index Finger

Every chance that I get to talk with local people about strange cultural norms in their country I do, because culture and different forms of living absolutely fascinates me. Every single day I seem to learn something new, which is why I love the experience of traveling and staying with locals and interacting on a daily basis with complete strangers.

Probably one of the most shocking pieces of information that I have heard regarding gestures is when it comes to calling someone to come to you with your index finger. We all do it from time to time, whether it’s to our kids, friends, animals or whoever and whatever it may be.

However, this is not something that you want to do in the Philippines because this gesture is actually punishable by arrest!

When I spoke with my hosts in the Philippines about this they told me that it was not a joke and if you did that towards an authority that you would be facing jail time. They claim that this is a disrespectful gesture that is only suitable for dogs.

They did mention that if are with your friends in the street and signal one of them with a finger and a police sees you, that he will not arrest you. However, if you turn around and do that to the authority, you would have major problems.



Do you have any crazy stories about gestures gone wrong while traveling or working abroad?

Do you have any gestures to add to this list?

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