Hands, gestures, meaning and culture

I’ve long been aware that hand-gestures mean different things in different cultures.  For example, in many Southern African tribal contexts, to see two male friends walking hand-in-hand is absolutely normal as a gesture of friendship and unity;  but in the USA, it’s usually found only among gay couples.  In the USA, to ‘give someone the finger‘ involves a single digit;  but the equivalent gesture in the UK uses two, in a reversal of Churchill’s famous palm-outward ‘V-for-Victory‘ sign.

Now the Telegraph brings us a photo gallery of hand gestures that may seem innocuous to us, but mean nasty things in other cultures.  For example:


Meaning: Are you an idiot?

Used in: Brazil

A South American gesture indicating stupidity, this requires improv skills and an actorly flair. To perform, put your fist to your forehead while making a comical overbite. The gesture is most effective when accented with multiple grunts. When executed correctly, you will be rewarded with appreciative laughs, though not, perhaps, from your subject.


Meaning: You’re stingy

Used in: Mexico, South America

Just as the heart is associated with love, so, in many Latin American countries, is the elbow with stinginess. In Mexico the two are so closely linked that a miser is described as “muy codo” (very elbow), the idea being that he rarely straightens it to pay the check. If your compadre makes a habit of failing to pick up the check, you may wish to correct his behaviour with this sharp gesture. For extra emphasis, bang your elbow on the table.

Note: In Austria and Germany the same gesture means “You’re an idiot,” suggesting that the elbow is where the subject keeps his brain.

There are more at the link.  Useful information for travelers, and entertaining for the rest of us!



  1. The "codo" is used all over the spanish speaking world. A variation is to say, "He's so codo that if you bang him hard on the elbow his toes spread first"

  2. If you want some interesting hand gestures, you should spend some time with the deaf. Plenty of 'signs' that aren't in the usual phrase books! 🙂

    One G-rated gesture I like is the sign for 'bored' which is the index finger of a closed hand, placed at the base of the nostril and and twisted back and forth. I can't think of a more appropriate gesture…

  3. I have a similar book called "A Dictionary of Russian Gesture" by Barbara Monahan. It covers much more than rude gestures such as how to recognize when someone is looking to split the cost of a bottle of vodka to the difference in the men's and women's kiss my ass gesture.

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