The thumbs-up, the peace sign, and the wave are common gestures in the US to express positive emotions and share your thoughts. During a presentation, the way you move your hands can also convey more about the message than you might even realize. But hand user beware! These motions often carry cultural significance that can vary from place to place. Here are a few fun facts that could prevent you from embarrassment during your next global presentation:
Thumbs Down to Thumbs Up
The “thumbs up” sign was originally thought to have come from the Roman Coliseum, where the fates of gladiators were decided. Other studies suggest they come from WWII pilots signalling each other in the air. But wherever it derives, the positive “thumbs up” in Western cultures is a big no-no in other countries, such as Greece, Italy, and some throughout the Middle East. It’s essentially the equivalent of the middle finger, which is why you should keep your thumbs safely tucked away if you aren’t sure about the custom.
A Nod is Not Always a Yes
In Greece, a downward nod means yes, while an upward nod with a short clicking noise means no. Perhaps stick to learning a bit of Greek next time you visit rather than confusing everyone?
Beware the “A-Ok”
In Western cultures, this hand gesture simply means that everything is peachy keen. However, in Japan, it is a sign for money. And in Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, and other South American countries, it is hugely offensive and refers either to a person being a “zero” or worse. Even scarier, in some Arab countries it is the equivalent of a threat which means “you’ll see!” Let’s all just stick to telling people we are “a-okay,” shall we?
This chill hand gesture was adopted in the 1960’s by surfers in Hawaii and spread globally. In fact, the American sign language symbol for surfing is the “Shaka,” which is its official name. However, if you use this symbol in Russia, it signifies an offer to have a drink. And if you try it in China, it represents the number 6.
Gesture mistakes can happen to the best of us. President George Bush senior had a major “oops” moment in 1992 when he gave a “v” sign in Australia from a limousine; a huge insult down under. When it comes to sharing a cultural hand gesture, it’s important to be mindful about the culture you’re entering. Check your hands before you wreck your plans, as we always say.
Question: What other hand gestures do you know that have cultural significance?
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