American Culture

Please check back in September, 2014 for our most recent update of these resources. In November 2009, an ESOL English Conversation Class held in the Sharon MA Public Library began a study of the “language” of gestures and their different meanings from culture to culture.

Using Internet resources and interviews with recent immigrants, the teacher and students constructed a chart listing common American hand, finger, facial, and other gestures, and over the course of two years, they identified countries where the gestures are acceptable and where they are considered rude or can easily be misunderstood. There were many funny stories particularly about heads of state making serious gaffs with gestures while addressing audiences in foreign countries. As we concluded our research, we fervently hoped that American presidents would learn not to use America’s favorite gesture of approval, the “Thumbs Up,” when visiting the many parts of the world where it has obscene meanings.

American Culture
Gestures Polite Rude Other Information
A. Hand Gestures
1. Passing an item to someone with the left hand U.S. Muslim countries, Middle & Far East, Japan
2. Passing an item to someone with either hand U.S. The Japanese and other Asians prefer to pass with both hands.
3. Patting a student on the head meaning “good work” U.S. Asia Upsetting to Buddhists in particular
4. Waving hand with palm facing outward to greet someone U.S. Nigeria In Europe, waving the hand back and forth can mean “No.”
5. Waving hand side to side to say “goodbye” U.S. Europe – this means “no”* *To wave “good-bye,” raise the palm outward and wag the fingers in unison
6. Giving a handshake as a sign of greeting U.S. Muslims may consider this rude.
7. Keeping hands in pockets U.S. Impolite in business meetings in: Finland, Sweden, France, Belgium, Indonesia, Japan, and Turkey.
B. Finger Gestures
8. Beckoning with finger meaning “come here” U.S., most countries Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines, Middle or Far East, Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, Indonesia, and Hong Kong
*Instead, beckon with palm down and fingers or whole hand waving
9. Pointing at something with the index finger meaning “look at that” America Middle East, Far East, Russia, Asia * *Use an open hand (or in Indonesia, use your thumb)
10. Giving the Hook ‘em horns gesture made by raising the index and pinky fingers while curling the other fingers into the palm Texas (to cheer on a sports team) Africa (where it is considered a curse) In Brazil, it is used to wish someone good luck.
11. Making a “V” sign meaning “victory / we succeeded / it’s finished, complete” [palm facing outward] U.S., Britain (with palm facing outward) Britain (with palm facing inward) Most of Europe follows the British custom
12. Giving a “Thumbs Up” sign to say “It’s okay.” U.S. Australia, Iran, other Muslim countries Also obscene in Central & South America
13. Forming a closed circle with fingers to indicate “O.K.” America Brazil, southern Italy, Germany, Greece, Russia Russia = zero; Japan = money;
France = something is worthless
14. Showing two crossed fingers to wish someone good luck U.S., Europe Paraguay
15. Snapping the fingers to get attention Belgium, France Sometimes considered rude in the U.S.
C. Head, Face and other Gestures
16. Nodding head up and down to say “Yes” U.S. Means the opposite in Bulgaria and Greece
17. Nodding head back and forth to sides to say “No” U.S. Opposite in parts of Europe and Middle East
18. Using direct eye contact to indicate interest in the other person’s conversation U.S., Arab cultures Latin America, Caribbean, Japan, other Asian cultures *has sexual overtones; focus on neck instead
19. Kissing on both cheeks to greet someone Italy
20. Smiling meaning “glad to see you” U.S. The Japanese may smile when confused or angry. In other parts of Asia, people may smile when they are embarrassed. People in other cultures may not smile at everyone to indicate a friendly greeting as we do in the United States. A smile may be reserved for friends.
21. Sitting with soles of feet or shoe showing meaning an insult to others around you Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Muslim countries, Japan, France, Middle and Near East (and in business meetings in France and England) Taken as an insult.
22. Bowing Shows rank & status/Japan/China
23. Slouching Northern Europe
24. Sitting with legs crossed Ghana, Turkey