Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Business

By Gayle Cotton, a renowned keynote speaker, internationally recognized authority on cultural  science and the author of Say Anything to Anyone Anywhere: 5 Keys to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication

Success leaves clues, or in some instances, the lack of success leaves clues! Gestures are one of the first things to come to mind that can cause a major cultural faux pas. They can quickly sabotage anyone, including the most savvy business professionals. People from every culture, including various country leaders and several U.S. presidents, have been guilty of unintentionally offending people from different cultures through the use of inappropriate gestures. When it comes to body language gestures, the wisest advice might be to keep your fingers to yourself!

In Brazil, Germany, Russia, and many other countries around the world, the OK

sign is a very offensive gesture because it is used to depict a private bodily orifice. The OK sign actually does mean “okay” in the United States, however in Japan it means “money,” and it is commonly used to signify “zero” in France. Clearly the OK sign isn’t offensive everywhere; however, it is not OK to use in many parts of the world, nor does it necessarily mean “okay”!

Most people are aware that the V for victory or peace sign was made popular by Winston Churchill in England during WWII. However, it’s important to take heed of where you are in the world, because if you make this gesture with your palm facing inward in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and several other countries throughout the world, it in essence means “Up yours!”

On Inauguration Day 2005, President George W. Bush raised his fist, with the index and little finger extended, to give the time honored hook ’em horns gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team to the marching band of the University of Texas. Newspapers around the world expressed their astonishment at the use of such a gesture. Italians refer to it as “il cornuto,” which means that you are being cuckolded (that is, that your wife is cheating on you!). It’s considered a curse in some African countries, and is clearly an offensive gesture in many other parts of the world.

The thumbs-up gesture is commonly used in many cultures to signify a job well done. However, if it is used in Australia, Greece, or the Middle East — especially if it is thrust up as a typical hitchhiking gesture would be — it means essentially “Up yours!” or “Sit on this!” The thumbs up gesture can also create some real problems for those who count on their fingers. In Germany and Hungary, the upright thumb is used to represent the number 1; however, it represents the number 5 in Japan. Take heed all you global negotiators: there is a big difference between 1 and 5 million!

As a professional speaker, I am all too aware that simply pointing with the index finger at something or someone can be offensive in many cultures. It is considered a very rude thing to do in China, Japan, Indonesia, Latin America, and many other countries. In Europe, it’s thought of as impolite, and in many African countries the index finger is used only for pointing at inanimate objects, never at people. It’s best to use an open hand with all your fingers together when you need to point at something or someone.

Curling the index finger with the palm facing up is a common gesture that people in the United States use to beckon someone to come closer. However, it is considered a rude gesture in Slovakia, China, East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and many other parts of the world. It’s also considered extremely impolite to use this gesture with people. It is used only to beckon dogs in many Asian countries — and using it in the Philippines can actually get you arrested! The appropriate way to beckon someone in much of Europe, and parts of Asia, is to face the palm of your hand downward and move your fingers in a scratching motion.

The open hand or “moutza” gesture is insulting in parts of Africa and Asia, Greece, Pakistan, and in several other countries. It is formed by opening your palm with your fingers slightly apart and extending your arm toward someone, much like a wave in the U.S. This may seem harmless enough to many Westerners, however if someone does it with a more abrupt arm extension, its meaning changes to, “Enough is enough,” or “Let me stop you right there.” In other words, “Talk to the hand, because the face isn’t listening!”

When it comes to body language gestures in the communication process, the important thing to keep in mind is that what we say, we say with our words, tonality, and body language.

Our body language often conveys more than the words we use. At times, it can completely change — or even nullify — our words’ meaning.

Almost every gesture using fingers is sure to offend someone, somewhere, at some time. As a rule of thumb (no pun intended!), it is best to avoid using any single finger as a gesture — unless you are absolutely sure it is appropriate for a particular culture or country. Open-handed gestures, with all fingers generally together, is usually considered the safest approach.

There are countless additional gestures that mean something different in every culture. Gestures have such a profound influence on communication that it really is best to keep your fingers to yourself!

This article was previously published in The Huffington Post.

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4 Responses to “ Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Business ”

  1. Sharlene Vichness on

    All true….and barely scratches the surface of the impact of not accounting for cultural differences when interacting with clients and colleagues from diverse national origins. It’s not only when we travel that we should be aware of these factors. The first couple of generations of immigrants bring their cultures with them when they arrive on our borders. Cultural disconnects can be felt in every workplace every day. A foreign-born employee looks downward to show respect when speaking to a supervisor. The US-born supervisor interprets the downward glance as deception or dishonesty. This is just one example of well-intentioned gestures having the opposite effect than the intention.

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  2. Dr. Zareen karani on

    Cross-cultural misunderstandings directly related to gestures may cause embarrassment, which is absolutely to be avoided at work. People do business only with people they know, like and trust. It’s the reason why elegant clothes, excellent references and proposals are often useless in the face of an inappropriate gesture, albeit gentle and innocent.  

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