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Languages & Cultural Blog

Common American Gestures to Avoid when Abroad

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You might be going on a holiday, with no care in the world, just wanting to enjoy some fresh local food and doing the usual touristy things. Well, while planning your trip you may or may not be aware of how easy it is to offend people that belong to a different culture. So, rather than unknowlingly offending people or getting a lot of dirty looks on your blissful vacation, it would be better to read up on these gestures that may not be received in the most positive light on foreign land. 

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 Mountza/Moutza

So, what is the Mountza? Well, you should firstly know that it’s probably the oldest, most traditional, insult in Greece and so, it has been offending people for more than centuries. If anything, that should be enough clue for you to definitely avoid doing it.

So back to what it actually is, imagine gesturing “talk to the hand” so, fingers spread out and palm facing the person who is on your last nerve. Yep, that’s the Mountza and is equivalent to saying “Eat shit!”

The origin goes back to the time when criminals were paraded around town with dirt/faeces smeared across their faces. The act of applying faeces required the applicator to take the substance in his/her palm and then extend their hand to rub it on the convict’s face, making the entire gesture (even sans faeces) extremely offensive.

Therefore, don’t do your jazz hands in public or signal 5 with your hand when ordering burgers for yourself.

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Thumbs-up

Listen friend, there’s a possibility that, out of habit, you will show the thumbs-up sign to someone to say that it’s all good (in the hood?) or maybe just to appreciate something they have done for you but, I would like to shed some light on the fact that this innocent gesture can more than easily offend people in places like the Middle East.

In their culture, this gesture is as good as saying “shove it up your.. *let’s not mention the body part*” and so, it’s obviously offensive. It would be better just to keep your thumbs well tucked into your pockets, even if it comes at the cost of you looking like “you’re trying too hard”.

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Okay

Make a circle using your index finger and your thumb and extend the rest of your fingers, a simple and an extremely common gesture. I’m pretty sure you have either used it or seen somebody else use it.  This gesture is most commonly used in place of saying “okay”, “perfect” or “good” however, in some parts of the world there are some pretty negative interpretations as well.

For example: Gesturing this at someone in Brazil serves as the equivalent of showing the middle finger in the U.S.A. Whereas, in France, this gesture can be extremely hurtful as it is used to tell someone that they are worthless/zero.

So if your French friend asks you to tell her how she is looking, avoiding this gesture would probably be the best way to go about it.

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Devil Horns

Do you listen to rock music? Have you ever heard someone say “rock-on” or “let’s rock”? Well, I have a feeling that you might be familiar with at least one of the aforementioned things and therefore, know that this gesture goes hand-in-hand with rocking.

Turns out, in Spain and Portugal, the same gesture is used to tell your pal that their significant other is cheating on them. To add to this, there are some other places where the sign is used by satanic cults. So, unless you want to stir up something in a friend’s relationship or endorse these satanic cults, it would be best to refrain from using this gesture.

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To beckon

Clench your fist; extend your index finger and move it back and forth. This is a common American gesture used to tell someone to “come here”. Honestly, this gesture is especially handy when you find yourself in a large group setting. Just lock eye contact with the person you want to talk to and sneakily signal “come here” to them. There’s no need to shout over the rest of the crowd.

However, in many Asian countries, such as the Philippines, this is a very rude gesture as it is only used to call dogs. Hence, if someone uses it to summon someone then they’re implying that they equate the other person to a dog and are therefore, superior to them.

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Crossed fingers

Crossing fingers is a gesture done to wish luck or hope for a desired outcome. If you’re aware of this gesture (and you definitely should be since there’s even an emoji for it!🤞) then I’m pretty confident that at some point when your friend asked you to cross your fingers for them in the hopes of passing an exam, you told them that you’ll keep all your fingers AND your toes crossed! At least, I have definitely done that on plenty of occasions! Are you even a good friend if you don’t offer to cross all your fingers and toes?

Turns out, in Vietnam, you would be a really bad friend if you crossed your fingers at/for a friend. This gesture is extremely rude and disrespectful in the country as according to them it resembles a woman’s private parts. In my opinion, it would probably be better to just verbally wish them luck!


In conclusion, I have a friendly piece of advice for you; just keep your hands in your pockets and avoid offending anyone. Unless, someone actually wants to shake your hand then in that case it would be extremely rude to not take your hands out of your pockets.

Wait, I completely forgot! Don’t keep your hands in your pockets if you’re in Japan or Korea because you will either offend them or come off as a slacker. To be honest, there’s really no winning with these gestures. My second piece of advice to you is; just come back and read this post before you travel. Simple!


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