9 Innocent-Seeming Gestures That Are Actually Insults Abroad

9 Innocent-Seeming Gestures That Are Actually Insults Abroad

Careful when you give the "OK" symbol — because it may definitely not be OK.

By Bryce Gruber

You love to travel and fancy yourself an expert on how to properly eat in a variety of nations and cultures, but are you actually communicating the right way? Coming off as a rude American can sometimes boil down to merely bodily gestures versus loud behavior, so keeping a few basic concepts like these in mind when you're on the road may help you enjoy your vacation more — or even land you more business if you're traveling for work. Just like your momma always said, keep your hands to yourself and you'll be fine.

1. Don't pat anyone on the head, ever.

"Patting someone on the head in Buddhist areas is considered rude because Buddhists believe the top of the head is where the spirit lives," explains Lisa Haisha, M.A., a women's advocate and travel expert. That means don't try any cutesy head patting stuff in countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, or a host of other popular destinations. It won't be received well at all.

2. Thumbs up are only appropriate in English-majority countries.

Negotiating a good deal on a rug at the souk in a far off Middle Eastern land? Don't give a thumbs up when you reach a price that suits you, Haisha says. "Thumbs up in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia means a sign of approval. In Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of Africa it means 'up yours.'"

3. Slurp your soup mindfully.

While this may not fly in a sophisticated French restaurant in Paris or your favorite posh eatery in NYC, soup slurping is something of en expectation in many Asian countries. For the Chinese, however, it's basically a high five to the host. Feel free to throw in a gentle burp or two, as well (not kidding).

4. Don't wear shorts and sleeveless shirts at holy sites.

You may be totally secular and just want to experience the inside of the Vatican, get up close and personal with the Western Wall, or visit Mecca to see what it's all about — but don't even think about going in beachy attire. According to Tours-Italy.com, "As a sign of respect most visitors wear long-sleeve shirts and a pair of long pants. For those visiting the Vatican who come unprepared, as a way to skip around the dress code of the Vatican you can purchase plastic cloaks that you can wrap around yourself to cover your knees and shoulders." Other holy sites have similar restrictions, and it's always best to honor the local customs when it comes to spiritual matters.

A photo posted by Pope Francis (@franciscus) on

5. Don't cross your fingers in Vietnam.

"When one crosses their fingers, like for good luck, in Vietnam it is like calling someone a c**t," Haisha says. Yikes. 

6. Don't ever, ever give horn hands in Italy.

While you may think your "rockstar" horn hands are a sign of encouragement and general awesomeness, positioning your fingers in this way is a nonverbal signal that translates simply to "your wife is cheating on you." We can only assume that's not the positive message of encouragement you're trying to spread throughout the land of pizza and pasta, right?

7. Watch out for your thumbs near your teeth.

Traveling through India or Pakistan? Be careful which fingers make it to your mouth, because flicking your upper teeth outwardly with your thumb is basically the equivalent of a very stern middle finger here in the U.S. Maybe you're just clearing some hot curry out of your gums, but pick a different finger if you'd like to be welcome back.

8. Check your peace sign.

Aussies are pretty particular about their peace signs, and if you stick your two fingers up in a V-shape, you better do it with your palm facing out — otherwise it's a pretty open "eff you" symbol that rivals flicking the underside of your chin or giving the middle finger back at home.

9. Pick the right hand.

In a lot of parts of the Middle East and Africa, the left hand is reserved for wiping one's tush (and toilet paper is often in limited supply, so imagine that, okay?). You wouldn't eat from a communal dish with your left hand, so locals would most certainly not want to receive anything from your left hand either, simply because they'd assume they would also be receiving unsavory particles. Gross.

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