Hand gestures play an essential role in nonverbal communication. However, the same gesture may have different meanings -or even none- in different cultures. This collaborative post is an effort to bridge that gap.

India – Namaste

namaste gesture
Namaste (India)

Namaste literally means “I bow down to you”, or “Salutations to you”, but it is used in the sense a handshake is used in the western world. For us, no matter whether the person we greet is older or younger, important or not, a man or a woman, he/she has to be greeted with due respect, and the most common way is to join our hands as you can see my son doing in the image, and say, “Namaste”.  When we are greeting an older person or someone important, we bow down a bit. This shows the additional respect due to that person. Interestingly, it also replaces the ‘Goodbye”. Also, in India, Goodbye is never said in such final terms. It is always “We shall see you again” or “Come again” or “Thanks for coming”, but always accompanied by this gesture. Most often though, it is simply a Namaste, said with folded hands!

By Anu, Regional Contributor from India  

Spain – Do you get it? and Let’s eat! It is a gesture you can do among friends. It is a funny way to ask “Do you get it?” with your hand. An equivalent oral expression would be “¿Lo captas?”

get it? hand gesture Spain
Do you get it? (1)
lget it? hand gesture Spain
Do you get it? (2)

It is a gesture you can do among friends or family. You raise your hand and put it in front or your mouth and do the same several times. It means “Let’s eat!”. An equivalent oral expression would be “¡Vamos a comer!”

let's eat hand gesture Spain
Let's Eat! (1)
let's eat hand gesture Spain
Let's eat! (2)

By Marta, Regional Contributor from Spain  


England – Awkward turtle

Awkward Turtle is an English Teenage code (of the moment) to signal to each other that a situation is embarrassing! The thumbs have to move in circle to mimic a swimming turtle. There are many variations on this theme involving other animals or things such as Awkward Moose, Awkward Umbrella… Why? Why not! It’s the trend of the moment, it seems silly but is in fact very fun and is to Sign Language what Slang is to spoken language, a code that only the “Initiated” understand. I infiltrated the circles though…lol

awkward turtle gesture England

By DeeBee, Regional Contributor from France  


Philippines – That way

Filipinos tend to communicate through nonverbal cues most of the time. For foreigners, being observant of a Filipino’s body language and aware of these nonverbal cues would help greatly in ensuring one doesn’t get into sticky situations. For example, travelers often ask local villagers for directions to the next town or to the beautiful Mount Mayon in Albay. If the destination is close enough, the quick reaction of a Filipino is to purse one’s lips and point them that way. No, we’re not asking for a kiss. We’re just telling you that you’re almost there. “Yes, that way!”

that way gesture Philippines
That way

By Bryan, Regional Contributor from the Philippines  


Costa Rica – It’s so crowded!

In Costa Rica, one of the most common gestures is putting all the fingers together, pointing up, to say that a place is crowded. The origin for this gesture is unknown, but as Bud Brown explains in his video “Gestures From around the World”, it makes sense to think that every finger represents one person, and that they are all very close to each other because there isn’t much space. This hand gesture, placed in front of the body, is popular among young people who would say something like: “The bar was really packed”, while making the gesture for it.

crowded gesture Costa Rica
It's packed!

By Nuria, Regional Contributor from Costa Rica

United States – Don’t know, OK, Peace, Thumbs Up The thumbs up

The thumbs up basically indicates approval. It can mean “that’s good”, or “yes.” Alternatively, if you point the thumb downwards, it means just the opposite (disapproval, no, that wasn’t good, etc.).  The thumbs up can also be used sarcastically. If something is clearly poor quality, or if someone does something that’s obviously not good (sings off-key, almost runs you over with a car), you can give them the thumbs up with a big grin… a good example is the “cool story bro” meme: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/cool-story-bro.


thumbs up hand sign
Thumbs up

The Peace Sign Originally “V for victory”, a sign to communicate American solidarity during World War II, it came to mean “Peace” in the late 60’s early 70’s era. While not seen too frequently today (peace is apparently unpopular in America as of late), it can still be seen or used upon occasion. If you flip it around, it becomes a rather rude gesture in many other parts of the worlds. In some places, as the word “peace” has come to mean “goodbye”, it can be used as a farewell gesture, but think of it as a “slang” goodbye. You wouldn’t flash your boss the peace sign in this context.

peace hand sign
Peace sign

Don’t know: The “Shoulder Shrug” (I don’t know) If you point both palms upwards, and shrug your shoulders upwards at the same time, it means “beats me”, or “I don’t know”, or also “whatever”/”doesn’t matter to me”. You can shrug your shoulders without pointing your palms up and it means the same thing, but there’s more emphasis if you use your hands too.


don't know gesture
Don’t know

By Sean, Regional Contributor from the USA

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About the author

Ana Astri-O’Reilly is from Argentina, where she lived until five years ago. She currently lives in Dallas, USA with her British husband, but they move a lot. Previously a translator and English and Spanish teacher, Ana first started writing to share her experiences and adventures with friends and family. She speaks Spanish, English and a smattering of Portuguese.