International Body Language, Gestures & Manners: Don’t Be “That Guy!”



When you travel, you may think that if you don’t know the language, you can just communicate using gestures. BUZZER! Knowing what gestures and body language mean in foreign countries can mean the difference between making friends and getting beaten up and it’s all too easy to make mistakes.

Take the quiz to find out how much you know about body language, gestures and foreign customs:

okaysymbol What does this symbol mean?

  1. all right
  2. zero
  3. money
  4. unmentionable orifice

This is a trick question, as this symbol means all of these things. In the U.S. (and other places), it means “all right,” in Japan it means “money,” in France it means “zero,” and in Brazil it means the “unmentionable orifice”, literally.

See this cute little video showing gestures like this.

corna Ok, how about this symbol? Does it mean:

  1. “I love you” in sign language, silly.
  2. “Goat” in sign language.
  3. The sign of the devil, man, aren’t we at a Black Sabbath concert?
  4. A sign to ward off evil spirits.

This is a trick question. The symbol, called the corna, is both a heavy metal symbol and a way to ward off bad luck. Bonus trivia: Ronnie James Dio is credited as making this symbol popular among heavy metal fans. Growing up in an Italian family, he saw his gramma making this symbol to ward off the evil eye. When Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne, (who used the peace symbol in concert) in Black Sabbath, he wanted his own symbol, so he started using the corna.

NOTE: Blog visitor Fishy told me that this symbol also means “bullsh*t” in American Sign Language!

guycrosslegged This fellow is doing something offensive to Muslims or the Thai. What is he doing wrong?

  1. His overuse of aftershave is offensive to anyone.
  2. He’s wearing socks.
  3. He’s pointing at his head with an object.
  4. His leg is crossed and the sole of his foot is exposed.

It’s #4. In middle eastern countries and Thailand, the foot is considered the lowest part of the body, physically as well as spiritually. This man is exposing his foot to those around him, and is pointing his foot at the person to his right.

meal You are eating dinner in Pakistan, and use your left hand to reach for another piece of bread. Your host looks offended! What have you done wrong?

  1. You’ve served yourself, you should always wait and be asked if you want more.
  2. You wanted seconds, you greedy pig!
  3. You used your left hand.
  4. You are wearing nail polish which offends them.

It’s not that you went to get more food, but that you used your left hand. In many middle-eastern countries, the left hand is seen as “unclean” as it is used to wash your private areas (instead of toilet paper). As you might guess, “lefties” have a hard time over there.

tongueout2 You get off the plane in Tibet, expecting a nice relaxing vacation, and a Tibetan native makes this face at you. What the heck?

  1. You’re being Punk’d.
  2. You got in the middle of a spitting fight.
  3. You are being greeted.
  4. You’ve met the village idiot.

#3: In some parts of Tibet, sticking your tongue out is a friendly greeting! I think I like Tibet.

maasai You are in Africa, and an old woman spits on the top of your head. What’s going on?

  1. She just saved your life! There was a malaria mosquito on your head and she drowned it.
  2. She was giving you a blessing.
  3. The spit is part of the curse she just placed on you.
  4. It is part of a marriage ceremony.

#2: In the Maasai tribe of Africa, spitting on the head is a form of blessing (this is an old custom that is fading away). What is still common though, is the older person of two meeting spitting on their hand before shaking hands -thereby transferring the goodness of their spirit in saliva as a blessing to the other. Eew.

thumbsup2 You are eating a meal the middle east, and your host asks how you like your food. Your mouth is full, so you give him a “thumbs up.” He stalks away from the table. What happened?

  1. You didn’t answer fast enough.
  2. He’s going to get you more food.
  3. You did the equivalent of flipping him the bird.
  4. His mother was calling.

Although “thumbs up” symbol means “ok,” or “good,” in the U.S. in parts of the Middle East, it means you want to have sexual relations with the person you’re giving the thumbs up to. I guess someone had better tell all the soldiers giving the thumbs up all over Iraq, huh?

NOTE: although my research for this article said that the thumbs up gesture was obscene in Greece, several Greeks have commented to say this wasn’t so! I’m going to go with the natives’ opinion!

taxi You flag down a cab in Australia, and hop in the back. You try to make pleasant chat with the driver, but he seems angry. What’s going on?

  1. Don’t take it personally, cabbies are known to be gruff in Australia.
  2. He’s not really a cabbie, you’ve just been picked up by a serial killer posing as a cabbie. Run!
  3. You insulted him by getting in the back.
  4. You’re not supposed to talk to the cabbies.

It’s #3: In the United States, you always hop in the back of the cab. But Australians pride themselves on everyone being equals, so you’ve just insulted the cabbie by hopping in the back instead of getting in the front with him!

Are there any universal gestures? So far the only ones seems to be the smile.


2 comments so far

  1. mongoliangirl on

    Thanks for letting me know it is highly likely I am capable of easily offending others on every single continent! And I thought it was just my personality! ha ha

  2. Andreas on

    You should take part iin a contest forr oone of the greatest bpogs on the internet.
    I most certainly will recommend this website!

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