British and American body language and gestures

Summary: A guide to gestures and body language in the UK and USA, including differences and similarities, and comparisons to other countries.

By: | Audience: Teachers | Category: Teaching English | Topic: Varieties and Dialects

First Published: 14th Sep. 2018 | Last Edited: 17th Sep. 2018

Although most British and American body language and gestures are the same or at least understood in the other place, there are a few important and sometimes amusing differences. There are also many gestures used in both places that could be misunderstood elsewhere. This article explains the most important of both kinds, starting with the differences. There is also another article on this site specific to British body language and gestures.

 

Differences between British and American gestures and body language

The V sign in the UK and USA

A V shape made with your index finger and middle finger means “two”, “peace” or “victory” if you do it with your palm towards the other person and the back of your hand towards yourself. However, in the UK and a few other Anglophone places, if you turn your hand around so that the back of your hand is towards the other person, this is a very rude gesture. This kind of V sign is similar to the middle finger gesture explained below, although often more teasing or cheeky than aggressive and so slightly less offensive. Americans are rarely aware of the difference caused by turning your hand around for Brits, Australians, etc, and so can sometimes unwittingly offend when making a peace sign/ victory sign or (more commonly) asking for two of something.

 

UK and US gestures for the number two

The descriptions of a V sign above are also all true for the number two, which is most commonly indicated with the index finger and middle finger in a V sign. As with “peace” and “victory”, the direction of the hand does not matter for Americans and matters a lot for the British and a few other nationalities. The slight difference between “two” and “peace”/ “victory” is that you can also indicate the number without causing offense by keeping your index finger and middle finger touching, in which case the direction that your hand is turned doesn’t matter, even in the UK. However, the V sign is a much more common way of showing the number two.

 

The British thumbing your nose gesture/ Nah nah nah nah nah

As indicated by the alternative title to this section, this is a gesture that is generally used by children or by adults who are trying to be deliberately childish. It is a mocking gesture, especially used when you have done something better than someone else or want to challenge them, as in “Nah nah nah nah nah, you can’t catch me”. It consists of the thumb touching the tip of your nose with the rest of your hand pointing away from your face towards the other person. Then the four fingers are moved up and down separately from each other, as if your nose is your mouth and the hand is a trumpet. This can be made even sillier by touching the little finger of that hand and the thumb of your other hand and doing the same with that hand too, making for a kind of double trumpet. I was surprised to read that this is specifically British as it seems such as obvious thing to do, but I certainly can’t remember having seen an American do it.

 

The British fist shuffling gesture

This is an insulting gesture produced by making a hollow tube shape out of your hand by making a circle between your thumb and first two fingers and also curling the other two fingers in the same way, then moving the hand up and down. This is a fairly direct gestural translation of the British insult “wanker”. The literal translation of “wanker” is “masturbator”, hence the pretty graphic gesture, but as an insult both the word and gesture mean someone who is acting without thinking about other people, e.g. by cutting up someone in your car or by feigning an injury on the football pitch in order to get an unfair penalty. The word and gesture are generally understood in the USA, but they are rarely used and Americans may underestimate how offensive it is in the UK, being, for instance, rarely used in broadcast programmes.

 

The horns gesture in the UK and USA

Making horns by raising just your little finger and index finger is mainly limited to heavy metal fans in the UK, but in the USA it has other meanings such as supporting particular sports teams. This is offensive in many places, including the USA’s southern neighbours, because it means that the other person is being cuckolded, meaning that someone is sleeping with their partner.

 

Clenched fist salutes in the UK and USA

In the US raising one clenched fist is most often associated with black power movements, as famously seen in the 1968 Olympic Games. This is also somewhat true in the UK but there, as in much of the rest of the world, it is more associated with radical causes and revolution more generally.

 

British and American handshakes

American handshakes tend to be longer and firmer than British ones. This is especially true in business, where a strong and/ or long handshake can show that someone is a dynamic go-getter, a property that is still more highly prized in the US than in the UK. Americans are also much more likely to grab the other person’s forearm, elbow or shoulder with the other hand when shaking hands, something that in the UK can seem insincere and over the top unless the person who you are doing it to is a long-lost friend and/ or has just saved your life. Having said all that, by international standards both British and American handshakes are in the mid-range between the softest/ shortest and hardest/ longest, and a handshake accompanied by a kiss or bear hug is very rare in both the UK and USA.

 

British and American eye contact

Both British and American eye contact is more often and longer than many Asian countries such as Japan. However, it is shorter and less often than in countries such as Italy. Within that range, Americans eye contact tends to be longer and more often than it is in the UK, particularly when trying to “make friends and influence people”, sometimes to a level that can seem off-putting, insincere or even aggressive to British people.

 

The middle finger/ Giving someone the bird in the UK and USA

A middle finger raised with your palm towards yourself and the back of your hand towards the other person is probably the most offensive gesture for English speakers. Perhaps because Brits also have the V sign mentioned above, the middle finger is perhaps more common in the US and is perhaps more likely to be used in a teasing or generally rebellious way there, in the way that the V sign is used in the UK.

 

Thumb gestures in the UK and USA

Both Brits and Americans use thumbs up to mean OK, but with the British being less enthusiastic users and generally only giving two thumbs up ironically or to provide moral support for someone who thinks that they are failing. A thumb up to hitch a ride is also the same in both places. In baseball a thumb moved towards your shoulder means “You’re out”, something that is occasionally used outside sport with similar meanings in the USA.

 

The A-OK gesture in the UK and USA

Both Brits and Americans understand a circle made with the index finger and thumb with the other fingers raised to mean “okay”, but until I did the PADI diving course I don’t think I had ever actually made that gesture. It still seems quite American to me, and I use thumbs up much more commonly. Unlike many other countries, this is never an offensive gesture for English speakers.

 

Number and intensity of gestures in British and American English

The British are famous among Europeans for using few gestures, and guides to the UK for foreigners often warn them that wild waving of arms around is taken to be a sign of mental instability such as megalomania and/ or trying to hide a weak argument. However, by international standards you could probably say the same thing about Americans. While Americans tend to be more expressive than Brits in situations such as TED talks, they still tend to limit most movement to gestures with specific meanings such as the ones described in this article. A couple of my physics lecturers seemed to go the opposite way when trying to make a boring lecture seem interesting, producing strange random gestures that don’t match what they are saying, something which I haven’t seen American speakers do.

 

Fist bumping in the UK and USA

Although fist bumping (touching fists with someone instead of a high five or handshake) has been fairly common in the UK for a while, it is still seen as an American thing to do and so is often done with at least a slight ironic smile, and older people might even not reciprocate.

 

“Loser”, “Whatever” and “Speak to the hand” gestures in the UK and USA

These three negative gestures were all consciously borrowed from movies and are very much of their period, so are mainly used in a very knowing/ ironic way in both the UK and USA. In the UK that goes as far as almost always using an American accent when saying the accompanying words.

“Loser” is shown by putting a letter L made with thumb and index put on your forehead. Similarly, “Whatever!” (meaning that you don’t care what the other person says) is made by holding up the thumbs and index fingers of both hands with the thumbs touching, making a “W” shape towards the other person. “Speak to the hand” (an even stronger rejection of what the other person is saying) simply consists of holding your palm in front of the face of the other person, something that is deeply offensive in countries such as Greece where it means to go to toilet on someone’s face but in the UK and USA is mainly used in a fairly inoffensive jokey way.

 

The time out gesture in the UK and USA

This gesture comes from American sport and so is more common in the USA, but is also used naturally in the UK to mean “Let’s stop this conversation and come back to it later” in normal life. It consists of making a letter T from two open hands by holding one hand with the fingers pointing up and the thumb towards you and then balancing the other hand horizontally on top, also with the thumb towards you.

 

Finger gun gestures in the UK and USA

This gesture consists of pretending to shoot yourself in the side of the head with your first two fingers, with the thumb up as if it is a cocked hammer of the gun, sometimes accompanied by a phrase such as “Shoot me now” or “Kill me now”. It means that you would rather die than stay in the situation that you are in, often because you have embarrassed yourself but also because someone else is saying something embarrassing, boring, etc. Although this is fairly common in the UK and I use it myself, it still feels like an American import, perhaps because it is many more American than British movies.

You may also see Americans on the screen pointing the forefinger at someone with the thumb up, meaning that you are very pleased to see someone or are very glad to hear what was just said, sometimes accompanied with a phrase like “You the man!” This is often used self-consciously or even ironically in the USA, and this is even more true in the UK, where it is most likely to be used sarcastically (if at all).

 

The fist pump in the UK and USA

Holding up one fist and bringing it down slightly towards your hip to mean that something has been done well tends to be limited to certain sports such as tennis and is mainly used ironically in other situations such as trading jokes in a pub. This is true in both the UK and USA, but even more so in the former.

 

Blowing a raspberry in the UK and USA

Putting out your tongue and then blowing air around it to make a rude noise is a childish insulting gesture in many places including both the UK and USA, with the only difference being the name, with the “Bronx cheer” being a rather strange American name for it.

 

Similarities between British and American body language and gestures

This section deals with gestures and body language which is (more or less or completely) the same in the US and UK but might not be understood elsewhere, with the ones that are most likely to cause incomprehension top.

 

Air quotes in the US and UK

As is also true with one of the uses of quotation marks on the page, making “air quotes” when saying something means that you doubt that something is true, as in “He’s said to be a ‘genius’”, which means that I don’t believe that he really is. The gesture is made by holding up the first finger and middle finger of both hands and moving them down and then up as if you are drawing double quotation marks.

 

Hand whooshing over your head gesture

Sometimes accompanied by the onomatopoeic word “Whoosh” to show something flying past, an open hand with palm down flying over the top of your head indicates that someone missed something in the conversation. This is most commonly used with jokes which were perhaps too subtle or too intelligent for that person to catch. It is a very insulting and rather patronising gesture, except when aimed at yourself.

 

Cutting your throat gestures in the UK and USA

As long as you do so quickly with the whole hand palm down and without touching your neck, a throat-cutting gesture just means “Stop talking” for British and American people, for example when the organiser is gesturing from the back of the conference room that the presentation is going on for too long. However, an index finger moved slowly across the neck while touching it means “I will kill you”, for example when a classmate or sibling has just ratted you out.

 

Sarcastic clapping

Very slow clapping after someone does something has the complete opposite meaning of normal applause, being like saying “Well, didn’t you do well?” with a really sarcastic tone of voice.

 

Mooning in the UK and USA

Although the gesture seems to be almost universally understood, males in the UK, USA and some other Anglophone countries seem to be particularly fond of showing their bottoms as a way of insulting or shocking other people. I’m not sure why this should be, but could perhaps be because Brits and Americans are generally particularly uncomfortable with nakedness (compared to Germans, Japanese, etc), making mooning a more effective way to shock people than in some other places. Although well past its peak, the same could perhaps be said of streaking, meaning running naked across places such as sports fields.

 

Beckoning and waving away in British and American English

In both the UK and USA, a “come here” gesture is made with the fingers up and a “go away” gesture is made with the fingers down, in both cases with the fingers moving a lot while staying fairly straight. This can be done sideways, the exact opposite way round and/ or with the fingers curled more in other countries.

 

“I choked” gesture

As with the accompanying phrase “I choked”, putting your hands around your neck with your head to one side and maybe your tongue out means that you got too nervous and so failed, e.g. when presenting your ideas to the CEO. It can also be used about or towards other people, but is extremely insulting in that case.

 

Cheek kissing and air kissing in the UK and USA

In both the UK and US cheek kissing and particularly air kissing (coming close to people’s cheeks while making a kissing gesture and sound but not actually kissing) tend to be limited to people in artistic areas such as fashion and acting, with shaking hands and hugging being more common. Unlike places like France, kissing of children and/ or people you are close to tends to be limited to one kiss.

 

Tapping the side of your nose in the UK and USA

In both British and American English phrases like “Never you mind” and “Mind your own business” can be accompanied by someone tapping the side of their nose with one upward pointing index finger, presumably because those phrases are similar to the (much ruder) phrase “Don’t be nosy”.

 

British and American seating position

The British have historically often commented on Americans sitting in very relaxed and casual ways such as slouching, man-spreading and sitting with the ankle of one foot on the knee of the other. However, I would say all of these are just as common in the UK nowadays, and depend on gender, class, situation, etc much more than on nationality.

 

British and American personal space

Both British and American people tend to keep quite a distance from other people and seldom touch. The exception to this is shaking hands (or possibly briefly hugging) when meeting, but even then Brits and Americans tend to keep the rest of their body far away from the other person. This hatred of proximity is particularly true with strangers, for example being careful to enter a train without touching anyone else. It can also be true with people they know well, with most people rarely touching even family members during a conversation to interrupt etc, and only holding hands with young children and romantic partners. In both places, these things tend to be most extreme in sparsely populated rural areas and less true in big crowded cities. However, institutions tend to also have strict rules, such as the American schools that got a lot of publicity a few years ago for banning all physical contact between students, presumably meaning that even a pat on the shoulder was forbidden.

 

British and American asking for the bill gesture

While the spoken phrases are different in the UK (“Can I have the bill?”) and USA (“Check, please”), the gesture of holding the index finger and thumb together and moving them around in the air as if signing a cheque is common in both places. This is easy to understand once it has been explained, but is less internationally universal than you might suppose.

 

British and American good luck gestures

In both the UK and US people cross their finger and touch wood (often while saying “I’ll keep my fingers crossed”, “Touch wood”, etc) for good luck, and in both places most people have no idea why those things are supposed to help take away bad luck.

 

Showing an open palm in the UK and USA

Like the accompanying phrase “Hold on (now)”, holding up one or two open hands with the palm facing the other person is as likely to mean “You can’t say that” or “I don’t believe that is true” as it is to literally mean that the other person should wait. This means that the gesture is not very polite (while by no means being the direct insult that it is in countries like Greece). The “wait” meaning can be more politely said and gestured with a single finger to show the “a” meaning in accompanying phrases such as “Just a minute” and “Just a moment”.

 

British and American money gesture

The English sign for money is miming rubbing some money between your thumb and first two fingers. This is the same in most countries that I know, but is different in others such as Japan.

 

The so-so gesture in the UK and USA

Holding out an open hand with the palm down and then twisting it is a very common gesture for “so-so” and sometimes “more or less”, but is again less universal than many English speakers think.

 

Facepalm gestures in the UK and USA

Slapping your forehead or face with an open palm then keeping the hand there afterwards is used to mean that you (or less often someone else) made a mistake such as locking the keys in the car. Saying “Doh” while doing so is a direct borrowing from the Simpsons, but otherwise I would say that this gesture is just as British as American.

 

Thumbs down in the UK and USA

The opposite of the thumbs up “OK” sign generally means that you disapprove of something such as a movie or judge it to be worthless, as seen on some websites. It can also mean “I failed” in situations like coming out of an interview or audition or attempting to get tickets for something. It doesn’t have the much worse “Go to hell” meaning that is has in some other countries.

Copyright © 2018

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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