Given differing interpretations of common gestures across cultures, what are some examples of gestures that vary from one culture to another?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a number of seemingly innocent or innocuous gestures that, if done in certain foreign counties, would be interpreted vastly differently than in one’s own country.  Many of these gestures would, in fact, be considered highly insulting.  Many of these gestures are so much a part of American culture that many Americans traveling abroad routinely insult the local population without intending to do so.  That is why it is always advisable, when preparing to travel abroad, to spend a few minutes studying the cultural variations with regard to body language or otherwise simple hand gestures.

One of the most common misinterpreted hand signals involves the simple process of pointing, especially at another human being.  While Americans are constantly pointing fingers at objects and individuals for the simple and innocent purpose of focusing attention or making a point, in much of the world pointing is an insulting gesture.  The “thumbs-up” gesture routinely performed for the purpose of indicating that one agrees, supports or applauds another person’s actions or statement is seriously insulting in many parts of the world, as it is interpreted as suggesting that the other individual insert his or thumb “where the sun don’t shine.”  As one who has made this mistake in the Middle East, this educator would warn against complimenting someone’s possessions, such as their home, dress, necktie, etc., as doing so is interpreted as requesting that one be given the item in question as a gift.   Similarly, the peace sign formed with the index and middle finger extended is interpreted as a reference to the female anatomy that is considered very rude in Great Britain and Australia.  In much of Asia, beckoning someone with the index finger extended and hooking back in a “come here” mode is, at best, rude and, at worst, a suggestion that the individual being summoned is about to die.

These are only a few of the otherwise innocent American gestures that are interpreted very differently in many regions of the world, especially in Asia and the Middle East.  And this does not include reflexive movements like crossing one’s legs while seated and exposing the soul of the shoe, which is very offensive in both of those regions, as is declining coffee or tea when in a business meeting.

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