When we don't speak the local language, most travellers rely on gestures to express ourselves in a foreign country. These can be particularly helpful when you have lost your phrasebook and urgently need to communicate something to a local. However, it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with other countries' customs before embarking on a trip, since the same gestures may have different, or even opposing, meanings in different cultures. Below are the most common gestures that you should avoid when travelling.
In most English-speaking countries, sticking your thumb out is a fairly innocent gesture, mostly used to show approval or simply that you are having a good time. The 'thumbs up' is thought to have been popularised in the US by Second World War pilots, who adopted the gesture from the Chinese - the latter extended their thumbs to mean the number one. The gesture is used worldwide, holding different meanings in differing contexts. In scuba-diving, for example, it signals the end of a dive and the wish to ascend. However, 'thumbs up' is best to avoid in Iran, Afghanistan, Greece, and parts of West Africa and South America, where it is perceived as an extremely offensive sexual insult.
This gesture is also widely used in diving, meaning that 'all is well.' In many places it signifies 'zero': indicating, for example, having no money in Japan. Meanwhile, Central Europeans place their nose inside the circle created by the A-okay to show drunkenness, the gesture mimicking a person holding a bottle. However, you really shouldn't brandish the sign in Turkey or Brazil, where the gesture has a very different meaning and is equivalent to giving somebody the finger. In the 50s, President Nixon caused quite a stir when he gestured a-okay to a crowd of Brazilian journalists and government officials while disembarking a plane.
Crossing your fingers usually demonstrates wishing for a good outcome, or can be used when telling a lie. This gesture has particularly interesting origins - it was first used by early Christians who crossed their fingers to protect themselves from evil, imitating the Christian cross. The sign also allowed them to recognise each other during times of prosecution, and it was believed that the power of the cross could protect a Christian from going to hell when lying. Although the power of the gesture is debatable, it is best to avoid crossing your fingers when travelling to Vietnam, where it is used to represent female genitalia and considered highly offensive.
Touching the head
It is not uncommon for Westerners to pat a child's head or ruffle their hair, but the gesture is a very insulting one in predominantly Buddhist communities, such as Thailand or Sri Lanka. Both literally and figuratively, the head is considered the highest part of the body - it is sacred because that is where the spirit exists, and so touching another person's head is very rude, even if it is intended as a friendly gesture.
An extended palm usually means 'stop', or a jokey 'talk to the hand' if put in front of somebody's face while they are talking. Although not the most pleasant gesture in the West, the 'moutza' is the ultimate insult in Greece. So much so, that when indicating the number five, the Greeks take care not to over-extend their fingers, or purposefully face the palm towards themselves. The oldest offensive gesture still in use, the moutza originates from ancient Byzantine, where thieves and other criminals would be paraded through the city with their faces smeared with dirt and excrement ('moutzos'). The process involved collecting faeces in the palm and then extending your fingers over the criminal's face, so the gesture itself became insulting. Definitely avoid this one!
Beckoning someone with your hand or finger seems like a relatively harmless way of calling them over. It is one of the most common signs signifying 'come here' in the West, however, it is rarely used in many East Asian countries. In Japan and Singapore, for instance, turning your palm up and motioning signifies death and the appropriate beckoning gesture involves holding your hand at head level and facing your palm down. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, beckoning in general is perceived as highly offensive and is punishable by arrest.
The intuitive gesture of pointing to something or somebody is considered rude throughout the world. In some countries it is more offensive than in others, however, so it is best to be careful when asking locals for directions in China, Japan, Indonesia and some Latin American countries. In most African countries, the index finger is only used to point at inanimate objects, and tourists are advised to use their whole hand to gesture direction.
The left hand
Most Westerners rarely think about which hand they use to eat, hold objects or gesture with, but it is an important issue in a lot of cultures worldwide, which has not made it easier for left-handed travellers. In India, Sri Lanka and some Muslim countries the left hand is considered dirty as it is used for cleaning oneself - so, eating, shaking hands, and passing objects to others should all be done with the right hand. Interestingly, if their right hand is wet or dirty, the Senegalese will offer their right wrist for a handshake.
So now that you know everything your adventure is ready to begin. Where to start? Frontier offers volunteer projects all over the world where you have the chance to go beyond the typical role as a backpacker and get the full cultural experience. Why not allow yourself to fully integrate in tribal traditions in South Africa's Zulu community? Or push your luck and try out the animal kingdom in the jungle?
Check out Frontier's blog 'Into the Wild' where you can read more articles like this!
By Jans Mynbayeva