Body gestures and its global interpretation!

There are some common socially accepted interpretations of body language within business circles.

For example:

  1. Openness is displayed by:
    1. Showing open hands or taking your jacket off; or
    2. Moving closer or leaning forward, when you are speaking to someone.
  2. Anger is interpreted when:
    1. A person has a tense and rigid body or their fists are clenched; or
    2. A person has shallow breathing or displays continued eye contact with dilating pupils.
  3. Evaluating:
    1. A person is perceived to be ‘evaluating’ or thinking of something, whenever their heads are tilted or they are stroking their chin.

This article is not about these commonly known body language. Instead, it is about those body gestures that are interpreted differently, depending on the country or culture that a person originates from.

A famous faux pax

In Australia, in 1993, the then President Bush (Snr) was visiting the country. As was common practice, The President was being escorted through town in a luxury sedan. From his vehicle, The President was occasionally waving at the crowd and every now and then, he showed the crowd the, ‘V-Sign,’ implying victory.

The next day, to his horror, it was evident that The President enraged the Australians as he showed the sign incorrectly. When the ‘V-Sign,’ is displayed with the palm facing the audience, it means, ‘Victory,’ but when the palm faces the person showing the sign, it actually means, ‘Shove It’. The President showed the latter, which had infuriated the crowds.

Before you also find yourself in the predicament of the then US President, consider some body gestures with different interpretations, depending on where you are in the world!


Gestures involving the hands

Beckoning with the index finger

When calling someone – if you are in the US and use your index finger to call someone, this is acceptable. However, if you are in the Far East, Portugal or Spain, and you call someone by beckoning to them with your index finger, it is considered to be an insult.

What about pointing?

It is considered rude and impolite in The Middle and Far East to point to someone – rather use an open palm to point. Also in these areas, pointing with your leg or toes is a definite no-no!

Passing items around

In Japan it is considered rude to pass items with one hand – you should use two hands – even if you are passing a pencil.

In India, the left hand is considered unclean – don’t ask – so pass items with your right hand – especially gifts and business cards!


Gestures involving the fingers

The ‘OK’ Sign

If you are in Europe, the ‘OK’ sign means ‘zero’ or worthless and if you are in Japan – the ‘OK’ is a sign for money.

Thumbs up

This generally means that you did a good job or well done on an achievement.

However, if you happen to be in Australia and you give someone the ‘Thumbs-Up’ – you actually said, ‘Up yours,’ to them!

Thumb to the side

Generally this means that you are thumbing for a lift.

However if you happen to be in Malaysia – ‘thumbing to one side’ means that you are pointing at something. This is because in Malaysia they consider it rude to point with the index finger and prefer to use their thumb instead!

Finger in the air

Generally this is used to get the attention of someone, like a waiter.

However, in Japan, it is considered rude to point your finger in the air – whilst in South Africa – pointing a finger in the air might get you a taxi ride into town!




Generally, people use their hand to wave good-bye to someone – however this could also be a signal for saying, ‘No’.

Other forms:

It is common business practice to greet fellow business colleagues with a firm handshake.

However in Japan, you are greeted with a bow, and the bow can range from a small nod, to a 90-degree bend at hip. The higher the status of the guest, the greater the respect, and the deeper and longer will the bow be.



Eye Contact

In general, if you are in US & Europe, speaking to people whilst maintaining eye contact is acceptable and in fact encouraged. However eye contact is considered rude and disrespectable if you are in Asia and Africa.

Raising eyebrows

If you raise your eyebrows and happen to be in Thailand – you are signaling, ‘Yes’ to someone and if you do the same in The Phillipines – you are saying, ‘hello’.



Holding your nose in public is universally accepted to mean, ‘bad odour’.

However if you tap your nose and happen to be in England, this means – “Confidential” whilst tapping your nose in Italy means, ‘Watch out!”



This is universally interpreted to mean being friendly, open and welcoming of conversation.

However Japanese people may smile when confused and in some Asian countries, people may smile when they are embarrassed.

In other cultures, people will only smile to close friends, family and acquaintances.


Kissing sound

If you have a dog, you would generally use a ‘kissing sound’ to call the dog to you.

Be careful of doing this in Mexico – as the ‘kissing sound’ is reserved for calling a waiter to your table.



As business moves into an era of becoming even more inter-connected and diverse, it is important that, as individuals we respect other cultures and their interpretations of body language.

This article was aimed to increase your awareness of these cross-cultural interpretations of body language.


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