19 Common American Gestures That’ll Confuse People Overseas

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To state the obvious, different countries interpret gestures differently.

When those cultural wires cross, Americans abroad can end up in a lot of trouble. Here are a few things you should definitely not do with your hands when you visit foreign shores.

1. Thumbs Up

What’s wrong with a nice, innocent thumbs up? Nothing—unless you’re in Thailand, Iran, or Afghanistan. In those nations, the thumbs up sign means everything from a childish provocation to a seriously obscene insult.

Hand giving thumbs up
Sincerely Media on Unsplash

To be safe, just smile and nod. Unless you can speak the language, you’ll be doing a lot of that anyway.

2. Hands in Pockets

In the United States, this is just one of the many things we do with our hands when we aren’t holding a phone up to our greedy, glowing eyes.

Man with hands in the pockets of jean jacket
Matthew Fassnacht on Unsplash

In Japan and Korea, though, leaving your hands in your pants pockets is a show of infuriating arrogance.

3. A Big-Toothed Smile

We’re usually told to smile with our mouths open, baring those pearly whites to the camera. Definitely don’t try that in certain Asian countries.


Man showing teeth with smile
Mikail Duran on Unsplash

In Japan, for instance, showing your teeth as you laugh is seen as rude. The Japanese take their etiquette very seriously, so make sure you have a closed-mouth smile—and throw up the peace sign!

4. Crossing Your Fingers

If you’re from the U.S., you might cross your fingers for luck. In fact, that’s pretty common. However, if you’re from Vietnam, you only cross your fingers when you’re trying to be as vulgar as possible.

Woman smiling with fingers crossed for luck
Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Next time you visit Vietnam, then, don’t cross your fingers in public. It could send the wrong idea. And whatever you do, don’t cross all your fingers and all your toes, no matter how much luck you need. This gesture does not signify luck in Vietnam.

6. Pointing

You might point something out just to call attention to it. You’d better not try that in China, though. In that nation, an outstretched index finger is only meant to communicate with dogs.

If you try it with a person, you’ll deliver an egregious insult.

7. Sticking Out Your Pinkie

We’re not sure why you would do this in the first place, unless you are super-proper British and you have a glass of tea in your hand. Regardless, though, you should know to avoid this gesture in China.

There, it’s basically equivalent to a thumbs down. It means you don’t like something. It’s an expression of negativity.

8. Devil Horns

You might extend your pointer and little fingers to celebrate your favorite metal band. Even if you’re at a Slayer concert in Spain, Italy, or Portugal, though, you should avoid making this gesture. In those nations, it carries the suggestion that someone’s spouse is cheating on them.

Hands in air at concert, doing
Jay Wennington on Unsplash

9. The Peace Sign

As long as your palm is facing outward, you shouldn’t have to much trouble with the classic peace sign. Accidentally throw this gesture out knuckles first, though, and you’re saying something quite different than “peace,” at least if you’re in the United Kingdom or Australia.

Hand in sunset giving peace sign
Nathan Fertig on Unsplash

The gesture pretty much translates as “up yours” in those nations. That’s not a very peaceful message.

10. Handing Out a Business Card With Just One Hand

In Japan, you’re supposed to give gifts with both hands outstretched. That includes business cards, which are a big thing in Japan.

If you reach into your wallet and hand a card to an international business colleague in Japan, and you just use a single hand, you might be called rude or disrespectful. That could ruin the whole business deal.

One hand holding blank business card
Anomaly on Unsplash

Study up on your cultural differences before you go on a big international business trip. That’s our advice, but we’ve actually never gone on a big international business trip, so take it with a grain of salt.

11. Patting Someone on the Head

In Buddhism, the head is seen as the seat of the soul. In a lot of predominantly Buddhist countries, then, it’s incredibly rude to touch someone else’s head.

You might think a little hair tousle is just a playful gesture, but if you’re in a Buddhist nation, people might think you’re trying to damage their spirit. That’s not looked on kindly.

Actually, we’re not sure why you would go around touching people’s heads in the first place. But in case you feel the urge to do that, know that you might get yourself in trouble if you’re in a room full of Buddhists.

12. Blowing Your Nose Outside the Bathroom

In Japan, people blow their noses in the bathroom. It’s seen as a private, almost shameful act, kind of like everything else that goes on in the bathroom.

Americans blow their noses wherever they darn well please. If you’re in Japan, though, you might be seen as rude and disgusting if you don’t save your sniffles until you’re behind closed doors.

13. Talk to the Hand

In the United States, it’s not super polite to put your palm in someone’s face. In Greece, Nigeria, and Pakistan, though, it’s more than just a little rude.

Man and woman outside, woman with hand in his face
Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

There’s a tradition in those countries of disgracing an enemy by rubbing dirt and, well, something worse than dirt in their faces. The “Brick Wall” gesture calls back to that practice. It’s like saying, “I’m rubbing unclean things in your face.” It’s definitely asking for a fight.

14. Eye Contact

We’re always taught to make eye contact during job interviews, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Forget that lesson if you visit Japan.

In that nation, prolonged eye contact is seen as an act of aggression. You can dart glances at an acquaintance’s eyes. That’s totally normal.

But if you try to hold the ongoing, long-term eye contact that they train you to perform in public speaking classes, you’re going to offend someone.

15. Brief Handshakes

In Fiji, people don’t just shake hands quickly and be done with it. They clasp hands, and they might hold on for the entire duration of the conversation. If you pull your hand away, you’ll offend someone.

16. The Thumb Between the Fingers

You know that “got your nose” game that people play with infants? Well, people do not do that in Turkey.

That’s because the gesture that seems like such a harmless game in the United States is roughly equivalent to the middle finger in Turkey. Best to avoid it, unless you’re actively trying to tick people off. Which, why would you do that, in Turkey (or anywhere else)?

17. Chewing Gum

Don’t do it in Singapore. It’s actually illegal in that nation.The whole thing goes back about 20 years.

Woman blowing bubble with gum
Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

Apparently, people were always spitting their chewed gum onto the sidewalk. One day, the government had enough. They banned the sale of gum and that ban holds to this very day.

18. A Dozen Roses

The gift of a dozen roses is a classic sign of romance in the United States. In Russia, it’s a classic sign of wishing death upon someone.

Dozen orange roses
Mel on Unsplash

In that nation, people only give bouquets that contain an odd number of flowers. Eleven roses is great. Thirteen is even better. But if you go with the even dozen, you’ll send exactly the wrong message.

Bouquets with an even number of flowers are only used during funerals in Russia. Remember that if you have a Russian sweetheart.

19. Nodding

A while back, we advised you to “smile and nod.” Well, we should have been more careful with our advice.

If you visit Bulgaria and go around nodding, people are going to wonder why you’re so negative. In that nation, the meaning of a nod is reversed. People nod to mean, “No.” They shake their heads to mean, “Yes.”

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