A guide to rude, offensive, insulting and taboo gestures for EFL learners
Summary: Body language and gestures which can insult or offend people inside and outside English-speaking countries.
This article lists and explains gestures which can insult and anger people in various countries around the world. It concentrates on gestures that are related to English speakers in two different ways – ones which English speakers make naturally but may offend elsewhere, and ones which people make elsewhere but might offend people in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, etc. There are also a few gestures which it is difficult to make accidentally, but EFL learners might come across in American movies, British TV series, etc and find it difficult to understand. The list is given in approximate order of how likely the gestures are to cause misunderstandings and/ or offense.
Given the subject matter, very easily offended people might want to stop here and instead read the related articles on this site on gestures in the UK, gestures in the EFL classroom, etc.
Rude signs for OK
In a perfect example of how inconvenient international communication can be, both signs for “OK” (thumbs up, and making a circle out your index finger and thumb) are rude in certain places. This also extends to other meanings of those gestures, meaning for instance that you have to move an open palm up and down to not insult the motorists when hitchhiking in Turkey so as not insult people by raising your thumb.
In places such as the UK and US thumbs down is just the opposite of thumbs up and so means “bad” or turning down something. In Japan, although it is not commonly used, it traditionally means “go to hell” and so might be understood as stronger than you intend.
Although this is often not known even in the US, in a few English-speaking countries such as the UK you need to make sure that your palm is facing the other person when you use your index finger and middle finger to mean “two”, as the other way around is almost as bad as the middle finger below.
The middle finger
This gesture, which consists of putting up your middle finger with your palm facing yourself and all your other fingers folded down is less of a problem than most of the gestures mentioned in this article as it is quite well known and you are unlikely to do it by accident. However, some people underestimate quite how offensive and likely to get you into a fight this gesture is.
Showing an open palm
Language learners tend to use an open palm held up towards someone’s face to mean “Wait/ Just a minute/ Hold on”. In English this gesture often has the stronger meaning of “Hold on”, which is more like “I don’t agree” or even “You can’t say that”, rather than “Just a moment”. The more polite gesture is to hold up one index finger to show the “a” part of “Just a second”, “Just a mo’”, etc.
There is also a deliberately insulting gesture with a hand held up in this way, meaning and sometimes accompanied by the phrase “Speak to the hand (because the face don’t want to know)”, i.e. I don’t want to listen to you anymore.
In Greece, holding up a palm towards someone is much more insulting even than that, as it means “I go toilet on your face”. The only gesture which is more offensive to Greek people is two palms held up in that way (doubling the same meaning).
Gestures for I don’t know
Although raising your shoulder and/ or palms (facing up) is a natural gesture to mean “I don’t know”, it can sometimes be taken to mean “I don’t know and I don’t care”, “Why are you asking me?”, etc, especially if it is accompanied with a frown, a pouting mouth, eyes turned away and down, etc. The gesture is therefore best avoided, especially in customer service situations.
There is often a thin line between gestures meaning “drink” and those meaning “drunk”. For example, to British people a thumb tipped towards the mouth just means “Do you want a drink?” (meaning an alcoholic one), but doing the same while wobbling your head and/ or eyes around means “He is drunk” or even “He is an alcoholic”. To clearly avoid the alcohol meaning entirely, you can gesture drinking out of a traditional tea cup while holding the saucer under it with your other hand.
Throat cutting gestures
For people in the UK etc, there are two different throat cutting gestures with very different meanings. An open hand with the palm down moved near your neck as your wrist twists quickly left and right several times just means “Stop speaking”, for example when time is up at the end of a presentation. In contrast, a single finger brought slowly from the left to the right of your neck while touching it means “I’ll kill you”, although even that is usually used in a joking way. In other places similar gestures only have the “kill” meaning, and in Korea and Japan a similar gesture means “(You are) fired/ sacked/ dismissed”.
Gestures for “be quiet”
Putting one index finger vertically in front of your lips to mean “Be quiet” is a very common gesture. However, like the phrase “Be quiet”, this gesture can be too strong for some situations such as when the noisy people are paying customers. In these kinds of situations a much more subtle gesture is moving two open hands with the palms down slowly up and down, similar to the “slow down”/ “calm down” gesture.
Pinching a thumb and index finger together and moving them along your closed lips from left to right in a way that looks like closing a zip has the much more aggressive meaning of “Zip it!” and so should only be used jokingly or if you actually want to be aggressive.
Offensive eye contact
Most people understand that the amount of eye contact varies from place to place and person to person (often even within a single country) and so are used to dealing with variations. However, it is still difficult to get it just right, as there is a danger of too much eye contact seeming aggressive and too little eye contact seeming uninterested (especially in customer service situations). Perhaps the biggest variation is when you are being told off for doing something bad, for example by a teacher if you have misbehaved in class. Avoiding eye contact is common in some places but means that you aren’t really listening in others. Conversely, eye contact means taking the telling off seriously in some places but the same amount of eye contact means defiance in other places.
In English-speaking countries a quick raised eyebrow or two can just mean “Hi”, for example if someone enters a meeting late and you want to acknowledge them without interrupting the meeting. In other places it has more of a sexual come on meaning, so misunderstandings are certainly possible!
Gestures for crazy
In some countries such as France, tapping the side of your head with a horizontal index finger means “crazy”, so if you want to make a gesture for “remember” instead, make sure that you put the finger further forward on the side of your forehead and use an almost vertical index finger instead of a horizontal one.
This is much less likely to be done accidentally, but twisting an index finger around near the side of your head also means “crazy”.
Pointing your feet towards someone
Especially in Buddhist countries such as Thailand, feet are considered dirty and so the soles should not be pointed towards people, statues of Buddha, etc. That means that you have to be very careful how you sit, avoiding sitting on the floor with your feet straight ahead, putting a foot on the opposite knee when you sit on a chair, etc.
Slow hand clapping
This is so extreme that it is difficult to do accidentally, but in some places such as the UK and USA a very slow hand clap is meant ironically and so has the insulting opposite meaning to clapping your hands at normal speed.
Offensive use of air quotes
Although there is nothing fundamentally insulting about putting your index and middle fingers up and curling them down as if you are drawing quotation marks in the sky, it is most often used to make positive words ironic and so actually have the opposite meaning, as in “Well, that presentation was ‘interesting’”. Although this gesture seems to be limited to English-speaking countries, in some countries similar marks are used to emphasise words in writing, and some EFL learners can unintentionally insult people when actually trying to make a positive meaning stronger.
Fist shuffling gesture
Curling all your fingers with the thumb and index finger touching to make a kind of hollow tube shape and moving it up and down is a fairly obvious gesture for masturbation. This is most common in the UK, where “wanker” is a common (but still very offensive) insult for inconsiderate people.
Touching people’s heads
In many countries, including Buddhist countries such as Thailand, the head is considered the most holy part of the body and so shouldn’t be touched by others. For that reason, patting someone on the head, messing up people’s hair in playful way, etc are taboo. However, exception is often made for small children.
Holding your bicep gesture
Holding the bicep of your right arm as you bend your right arm with the fist up has two offensive meanings. One is sexual, for example to show that you find someone extremely attractive. The other is a very aggressive way to tell someone to “eff off”, similar to the middle finger.
The whoosh gesture
The word “whoosh” is used more and more online to show that a joke has “gone over someone’s head”, meaning that they didn’t realise it was meant to be humour, usually because of stupidity. The gesture with this meaning is one open hand with the palm down flying just over the top of your head, with the fingers point in the direction of travel.
Outside of the military, raising your hand to your forehead in a salute is usually meant sarcastically, for example to show that the other person is being bossy.
Blah blah blah gesture
Moving a thumb towards and away from the other four fingers with the hand up to represent a mouth moving means that someone is being long-winded, saying pointless things or nagging, all of which are pretty negative.
Shooting yourself gesture
Pretending to shoot yourself in the head with a gun made out of the fingers of one hand can be okay in situations where the meaning is obviously “I’m so embarrassed. I made a stupid mistake. Please shoot me now”. However, in other situations it can mean “I’d rather shoot myself than continue talking to you”, in which case it is obviously very insulting.
This has the same two meanings as shooting yourself and so should be used with the same care. It consists of slapping your forehead and right eye in a way that makes a slapping noise.
Throwing up your hands gesture
In a similar way to the two gestures above, throwing up both hands to mean “I give up” is fine if it means you doubt your own ability to do something but is quite aggressive if it means things like “I give up. There is no chance of you understanding what I have to say”.
Massaging your forehead gesture
In contrast to the gestures just above, massaging your forehand with your thumb and fingers means “(God) give me patience/ strength” in a way which is always aimed at other people, for example people who keep repeating the same idiotic ideas.
This gesture was only briefly popular, but is still fairly widely understood. Making a L shape from your thumb and index finger and putting it on your forehead indicates that the person who you are talking to or someone else is a “loser”, a rather vague insult which is something like the opposite of “part of the elite (…)”.
This is similar to the “loser” gesture above, including in how dated it is. Making a W shape from two index fingers and two thumbs with the ends of the thumbs touching means that you don’t care about what the other person is saying.
In the US and UK, holding up just your index finger and little finger as if your hand is a bull with horns has no particular general meaning and is mainly restricted to groups such as heavy metal fans and supporters of particular sports teams related to bulls. In Spanish-speaking countries, however, it’s literal meaning is that someone is sleeping with your wife, and it is used as the equivalent of a middle finger when insulting bad drivers, etc.
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