Right Back at You, Buddy: American Hand Gestures in Translation

Category: Culture, Translation Services

While our bailiwick here at Acclaro is on business translation services, we also know a fair bit about how perspectives of something in one culture can be pretty different in another. Hand gestures, for one, can vary wildly.

Picture it: You step off the plane in Athens, excited to get to the boat for the the island paradise of Santorini. As you exit the airport a taxi driver stops to let you cross the street. Without thinking twice, you raise your hand as a sign of saying thank you. Suddenly, the driver is shouting and flailing his hands in the air. What’s his problem? Here’s a hint: it’s you. You just gave him the “Moutza” — the Greek equivalent of the middle finger.

To keep you from going from “thank you” to “[BLANK] you” with the flick of a wrist, we’ve put together a short guide on six of the most common hand gestures that fail the friendly test in translation. Not only is this important while travelling, but also when selecting appropriate images for, say, global marketing translations.

1. The “Moutza” 

The gesture described above, with your palm open and facing someone, is one of the most traditional insults in Greece, as well as Africa and Pakistan. It implies you are not impressed and that you would like to be left alone. In this sense, it’s a little like the American slang phrase, “Talk to the hand! (Because I don’t care).” The Japanese have a similar symbol in which they tuck their thumb into their hand. This translates to “animal.”

2. The “Thumbs Up”

This positive western gesture can get you in quite a bit of trouble if you display it in most of West Africa, Latin America, Russia, Sardinia and Italy. The gesture literally means “up yours.” Be sure not to consider using this gesture at all in the Middle East, as it is considered a massive insult.

3.“The Corna”

A clenched fist with the second and fifth fingers outstretched is generally viewed in western culture as a symbol to “rock on” or as “hook ‘em horns” for the University of Texas in Austin. Throughout history though, this symbol has been seen as an indication that your wife is cheating on you, and is still used as such in Portugal, Greece, Spain, Columbia, Brazil, Albania, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

4. The “O.K.”

Used by happy Western diners with their mouths full and divers signifying “all fine,” the thumb-and-index-finger ring with remaining fingers outstretched runs quite the opposite direction in Brazil, Germany, and some Mediterranean cultures. Not only are you saying the recipient is worth nothing, but you may also be comparing them to a certain anatomical orifice.

5. The “Dog Call”

Try as we might, we just couldn’t find an acceptable creative commons image here, so you’ll have to use your vivid imaginations for this one. Thought of as a “come hither” gesture in American film and television, pointing at someone and curling your index finger towards you in the Philippines is highly offensive. Meant only for dogs, this gesture can land you in jail (with a broken finger as punishment)!

6. The “V Sign”

Form a “V” with your index and middle finger in America and you cover a lot of ground— victory, peace, and “two more please.” In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Italy, the back-handed version of this sign is a bird of a different color. The bird, in fact. Unless you’re looking for a fight, mind your Vs!

Remember: Common American hand gestures can carry heavy weight in different cultures, and it’s important to be aware of gestures that can be conceived as negative when you’re abroad or when using these in high-visibility creative content. Without a sound comprehension of cultural context, your kindness and gratitude might come across as a nasty attitude.

Did we miss any other potentially insulting gestures? Let us know below!

Photo attributions: Gabriela Camerotti (Moutza), theinfinite (Thumbs Up), Peter Gerdes (Corna), homiesinheaven (OK)