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Hidden Meanings

Watch what you say!
A simple hand gesture could land you in a world of trouble. Here the thumbs up sign means "good going! " But in Bangladesh it's a taunt, and in other Islamic countries, it's the equivalent of an upraised middle finger.

Finger Beckoning.

Here we sometimes hail a waiter with index finger slightly raised and thumb loosely extended. In Japan it's rude to beckon a waiter if you motion with the index finger. And in Germany the waiter might well respond by bringing you two more drinks.

"V" for Victory.

It can mean "victory" or "peace," but in Britain if the palm faces inward, it's a taunt, especially if executed with an upward jerk of the fingers. As the story goes, over 650 years ago, the French disabled the English archers they captured in battle by cutting off their middle and index fingers. After the battles of Agincourt and Crecy, where the French were heavily defeated, the triumphant English gloated over their French prisoners by holding up their hands, first two fingers upright, palm inward, to show both fingers fully intact.

Hands in Pockets.

Think you can save yourself a load of trouble by shoving your hands in your pockets? Think again. Keeping one's hands in one's pockets while conversing is impolite in Indonesia, France and Japan. 

Tapping Forehead With Fore-finger.

It may mean "smart," but in Holland, tapping the centre of the forehead means "he's crazy."
In Argentina our sign for "he's crazy" (circling a forefinger next to the ear) could be confused with their signal for "You have a telephone call."

The A-Okay.

Joining the thumb and index finger in a circle is an insult in many Latin American countries. When Richard Nixon was vice president, he is reported to have greeted a crowd south of the U.S. border with a double A-Okay sign. Imagine the reaction!

A Frenchman reads the A-Okay gesture as meaning "zero" or "worthless."

Stop Sign.

Extending one hand, palm forward, means "stop!" right?
In Greece it's the moutza, or hand push, which is a common sign of confrontation. 
And in West Africa the gesture is even more insulting than the upraised middle finger.

Hook 'Em Horns.

The pinkie and index finger raised up and the two middle fingers folded down is beloved of fans of the University of Texas Longhorns, but in parts of Africa this is a curse. And for millions of Italians it is the cornuto, signalling "Your spouse is being unfaithful." Yet in Hawaii raising the pinkie and thumb means "hang loose."

  • In Japan, you nod your head in agreement; your host smiles and thinks you're paying attention.
  • In Egypt, you shake your head in disagreement; your host frowns and wonders why you don't understand.
  • In Mexico, don't call her senora, which can imply aging; call her senorita.
  • In Zimbabwe, don't ask, "Is it far?"; out of courtesy people will answer, "Not far." (Be specific and ask, "How long does it take by foot?") <>
  • Beware what you offer your host. Pass up chrysanthemums in Argentina and Balkan (they denote funerals), clocks in China (the written characters resemble those for death) and red pens in South Korea (red ink conveys unfriendliness). 
  • In Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries, eat and drink with your right hand; the left is considered unclean.
  • Your mother was right. Don't point. But if in Singapore you must, use your thumb, not your forefinger, lest it be taken as an insult or obscenity.
  • In Malaysia, curling the index finger is considered very rude. Scratching the air would be preferable for calling over a waiter.
  • In Russia, don't shake hands across a threshold; it might invite bad luck.
  • In Buddhist lands like Burma, don't pat a child on the head; it's the spiritually highest part of the body.
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