Intercultural skills: avoiding gesture faux pas!

Categorising Gesture

Gestures! They come in two categories: polite and rude. With global travel and relocation so readily available (and different cultures proudly owning their own gesturing mannerisms) it is well worth travellers and expatriates taking the time to learn what is acceptable in the wild world of gestures!

Unspoken Rules

Whether you speak local languages or not, it is important to remember that non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal. In many countries, body language and gesture add weight and meaning to spoken words and in some cases gesture changes verbal meaning altogether.

The Middle East

In Britain, we know it isn’t nice to be pointed at, but it’s not the end of the world. However, in Middle Eastern culture, pointing at someone or something with one index finger is considered very rude indeed! It can be interpreted as singling someone out or making fun of them. If signalling towards someone or something, try gesturing with an open palm as a more polite alternative.


China has a highly developed system of chopstick etiquette. Chopsticks are strictly for eating and shouldn’t be used to point at people or things or played with at the table. Do not stab your food with the chopsticks making them stand up on your plate – this is a bad omen.

Getting it right

Use your chopsticks in the correct manner to eat and when finished, place them on top of your bowl, (much like the UK when you put your knife and fork together on your plate at the end of your meal). Its also worth noting, the higher you hold your chopsticks, the more skilled you will appear to your peers.


In the Philippines, using your hand to beckon someone to “come here” is highly offensive, as the same movement is used to call dogs creating an unflattering comparison between man and beast. Instead, a common sight in the Philippines is the pursing of lips to point at someone or something.


In Western cultures, ‘crossing your fingers’ traditionally depicts a wish for good luck. In Vietnam however, this movement is considered extremely obscene (especially when aimed in the direction of another person) and is therefore inadvisable.


Brushing the back of your hand underneath your chin in a flicking motion indicates profanity suggesting someone should “get lost” in Belgium, northern Italy and Tunisia. In France, this gesture is known as la barbe (“the beard”) and is the hand-sign equivalent of macho grandstanding. Be careful if scratching your chin!

No/Yes Reversal

Many people assume that nodding your head is the universal sign for “yes” and shaking your head is the sign for “no” – but this isn’t always the case. In Greece and Bulgaria these actions are reversed. This can lead to some serious confusion, especially if you’re asked for extra sides when ordering from a menu.

Beware the bull!

The placement of your fingers to show horns, usually the sign for “rock on” in Western popular culture, has a different meaning in Spain, Greece and Italy. The “corna” is considered a suggestive gesture made to a man to imply that his wife is being unfaithful. It dates back more than 2,500 years and signifies a bull’s horns.#

Do your research

So, all in all, I would strongly advise doing your gesture research before travelling anywhere new. Are you aware of any further gesturing faux pas that travellers may unwittingly commit? Please feel free to share your knowledge!

Written by Lucy Owen – Global Recruitment Resourcer – Global Mobility & Expatriate Services at Alchemy Global Talent Solutions.