Around the world in 42 hand gestures

If you’re getting ready for a trip abroad and you want to connect with the locals, learning a bit of the language can be a great way to show your respect and sociability. Without a long-term grounding in that language, though, speaking to a foreigner in their mother tongue can be an intimidating proposition. Your prep time may be better spent learning a few regional hand gestures. The beauty of hand gestures is that you can say so much with one move: unlike a spoken language that requires multiple combinations of vocab, grammar and tone, you don’t have to be an expert to communicate with your hands.

That said, it is well worth brushing up on the basics before you leave the hotel room. For example, while much of the western world understands crossed fingers as a wish for good luck, in Vietnam the same gesture is, shall we say, an anatomically-themed insult.

Further east in Japan, the (palm outwards) ‘V-sign’ is a less offensive nuance to get wrong: rather than Churchill’s famous ‘Victory’ gesture, the Japanese use it to express that everything is okay, even if they are not smiling. The V may still hark back to the original victory sign, but in Japan it has come to signify a more humble form of success or happiness, possibly in reference to the figure skater Janet Lynn who became a popular figure in Japan after remaining cheerful in photos after her defeat at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.

Over in Europe, Italian hand gestures might be just as useful as their spoken language. They have a gesture for pretty much everything, and they don’t hold back when demonstrating them. The classic swipe of the chin – meaning “I don’t give a damn!” makes for a familiar, if unfriendly starting point. For a further introduction into the world of Italian hand gestures, and those of fourteen other popular international destinations, be sure to check out this ‘handy’ new infographic. (Peruvian gesture for ‘bad joke’? Point at the joker, and then at the door. “Ya se fue! He’s out of here!”)


ISGS (2016). International Society for Gesture Studies.

Burnett, S. (2014). Have You Ever Wondered Why East Asians Spontaneously Make V-Signs in Photos?

Marchetti, S. (2015). Italian hand gestures everyone should know.

Forbes, S. (2015). 18 gestures that can get you in trouble outside the US.

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