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From Barcelona to Iran

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Your guide to the rude hand gestures of the world

Whether travelling is your passion or you just like to go abroad occasionally, make sure to avoid accidental hand gestures that might look completely innocent to you, but insulting to others. Besides the notorious middle finger, used globally to flip others off, every culture has a variety of useful gestures conveying messages better left unsaid. Imagine getting lost in the streets of Barcelona. You approach a friendly looking Spanish guy and ask him for directions to Gaudi’s Temple. With an understanding smile, he shows you the way. Since your Spanish is far from being fluent, you add the “OK” sign in an adorable attempt to show gratitude. Well, mostly probably, little did you know that connecting the thumb and index finger into a circle with other fingers straight, would turn out to be an immediate insult (similar to the one-finger salute) that can cause whatever trouble it suggests. By the way, if you plan on going to a rock concert or festival in Barcelona, avoid expressing your enthusiasm with the so-called “devil’s horns” hand gesture familiar to all. It will make the locals wonder why you are eagerly trying to tell the band’s front man that his wife is cheating on him.

Watch your fingers in Italy and “don’t wish good luck” in Vietnam

In many countries, the physical language, particularly hand gestures, may convey messages that differ substantially from the universally accepted meaning, while even something as simple as scratching the nose can have an unexpected meaning and create and embarrassing situation. In Southern Italy, you would raise quite a few eyebrows by scratching your nose. Indeed, why would you complain that something stinks, when it obviously doesn’t. Italians are generally known for expressive physical language and a wide range of gestures, most of which have a distinct meaning. Remember Marlon Brando’s famous “chin flick” gesture in “The Godfather”? It was later adopted by Robert De Niro, of whom it would only be typical to add an “I don’t give an f’” motion to the actual words. Hand gestures can also vary from one country to another. For example, the gesture of pointing upwards with your fingertips put together, which in Israel and a few other countries commonly means “wait a moment”, would have a more castration-related twist to it if shown in Italy, while in South America it would be a prominent statement that someone’s mother is engaged in the world’s oldest profession.

Perhaps the Western world is more aware of the various meanings and more forgiving when it comes to an innocent mistake. In the East, however, making up for failed translation is not as easy. Some mishaps might even get you in jail. A gesture that means “come here” with the index finger signaling another person to approach is considered rude in Asia, since it is only used when referring to dogs. In the Philippines, for example, you might get yourself arrested for such an insult, should you be unfortunate enough to use this gesture in presence of a police officer. The finger-crossing gesture has a double meaning in Western culture: crossing fingers behind your back means you are not going to hold true to an agreement, while keeping your fingers crossed means to hope that things will happen in the way you want them to. In England, the crossed-fingers symbol adorns the National Lottery logo, while in Vietnam, it is the female equivalent of the “middle finger”, especially when directed at another person.

Fertile ground for embarrassing international incidents

Fortunately, most chances are that we will not cause an international crisis by pulling out a wrong gesture, but certain position holders would better be briefed on the subject before embarking on a business trip abroad. You might recall an incident that occurred in Tehran, at the meeting between the Swedish Ambassador, Peter Tejler, and the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Ambassador, while sitting in front of the President, crossed his legs so that the sole of his shoe was pointed at Ahmadinejad. In Iran, shoes, particularly their soles, are considered impure. Needless to say, that Tejler’s carelessness has not escaped the angry Iranian and highly amused Israeli media.

Another embarrassing incident took place in 1992, when President George W. Bush visited Australia. The President waved to the Australians from his limousine, raising his index and middle fingers as a sign of peace. Apparently, this gesture, which means “victory” and “peace” when the palm is turned outward, signaled thousands of Australians to sod off, since President Bush used it with his palm turned inward.

In fact, the negative side of this gesture is historically notorious, originating from the Hundred Years’ War between France and England (14th and 15th centuries). The French had a custom of cutting off two fingers of their British captives to deprive them of the ability to shoot the bow. The British used the “V” gesture as a sign of defiance and proof that their archer army still stands strong, and that the French can go to hell. By the way, Bush Jr. was not the first to use the “V” gesture erroneously, with the inner part of the hand pointed towards him. Winston Churchill made the same mistake during World War II, but quickly corrected himself, when the essential difference was explained to him. So, when travelling abroad, be aware of your hand movements, unless you want to find out how the local middle finger looks with less pleasant outcome.

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