It is often widely assumed that non-verbal communication is the same globally. Hence when travelling to non-English speaking countries, gestures is what we think we can rely on. This assumption, though, is not true and gestures that are generally considered acceptable in our culture and country might actually be offensive somewhere else. So when it may not be feasible to learn a whole new language it will definitely be easier to learn the dos and don’ts of gesturing.
In most cultures nodding your head up and down is considered a ‘yes’ and shaking it side to side is considered ‘no’. But we Indians also say ‘yes’ by tilting our head side to side (bringing the ears close to the shoulders). This gesture definitely confuses people from other cultures as it is somewhere between a yes and a no. Be prepared to get some blank stares if this is how you show your agreement. Also if you are in the Middle East it will be a good idea to keep in mind that a nod down means yes while a nod up is considered a gesture of disagreement, and if you are in Japan and see a person nodding it just means they are listening to you and doesn’t mean they are agreeing to anything.
Another widely used gesticulation is the ‘thumbs up’, which is considered a sign of agreement or means ‘it’s good’, but in some countries this sign is considered an offence. So if you are in Australia or Iran, avoid giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign.
In some cultures though, they start counting with the thumb instead of the index finger, hence it means nothing more than number one. So Europeans, like the Italian and French people, will show the thumb, index and middle finger to signal ‘three’ while Indians, British and North Americans will signal ‘three’ by showing the index, middle and ring fingers. The Chinese finger counting is much more intricate and they can count to 10 using just one hand, so if in China, it may be confusing for you if you are trying to buy seven or eight counts of something and the shopkeeper uses just one hand to ask you how many.
The ‘OK’ symbol of touching the tip of the index finger and the thumb also has other meanings. If you are in France and you want to tell the waiter that the meal you just had was excellent and use this symbol to do so, you will get a rude stare because the French consider this sign to mean ‘worthless’. In some cultures this can mean money, while it is an obscene one in many countries.
I remember when I was in school we were told not to point fingers as the other three fingers point back at us, well that is not just a lesson in moral science. Using the index finger to point or beckon someone can be considered belligerent in many South-East Asian countries, where they point at something or someone using their whole palm.
Two fingers raised in a ‘V’ symbol, with the palm facing outwards is generally considered a sign of victory and the Chinese and Koreans often use this sign while taking pictures. If you turn your wrist the other way and the back of your hand faces outwards with your index and middle finger in the ‘V’ symbol, in the UK, Ireland and Australia you are actually abusing. With just a flick of the wrist, a symbol can change meanings so much.
Even a simple greeting can be different in different cultures. While in India we touch our palms in the Namaste stance when we meet someone, the general greeting all over the world is shaking hands. But the French greet each other by hugging and giving a kiss on each cheek, which might feel very awkward and weird to someone from outside the country. The Japanese on the other hand bow in greeting.
Though hand gestures might mean different things in different countries, one thing is always constant – facial expression. The whole world has the same expressions for anger, sadness, pleasure, happiness. So when in doubt, just smile and that will be the safest beginning of a conversation anywhere in the world!