Worldsmart: Gestures around the World

Body gestures have different meanings according to the country in which they are expressed. We shall seek to examine the proper body etiquette in the nations of the world on a per continent basis. We shall begin our review with Europe.

NOTE: The information provided here does not attempt to generalize a whole population of a country. The information is provided for entertainment purposes only.

- Gestures in Europe
- Gestures in Central and South America
- Gestures in the Mid-East and Africa
- Gestures in Asia and the Pacific

North America

CANADA - Western and Atlantic Provinces CANADA - Quebec

Canada (Western and Atlantic Provinces)

  • A firm handshake plus direct eye contact is the standard form of greeting in Canada. Men should shake hands with women if they offer their hand, but many women will just say 'hello,' perhaps with a nod of the head, and not shake hands.

  • Distances are farther apart than in Latin America or the Far East. When conversing, people will stand about a half meter apart.

  • There is little or no casual touching. The only exceptions are that good male friends may occasionally pat the other's back, close relatives may put their arms around another's shoulder, and good female friends may occasionally hug when greeting each other after long intervals.

  • Good eye contact is important, whether it is during business or social conversation.

  • In social situations, men will usually rise when women enter a room.

  • Canadians in these provinces are described as 'friendly,' 'somewhat reserved,' and "on the conservative side.' Therefore, excessive gesturing is not common.

  • Men will sit with legs crossed, and all three forms are common and accepted: crossed at the ankles, crossed at the knees, and having one ankle crossed on the other knee.

  • Beckoning is done by raising the hand, fingers pointing up and palm inward, and motioning the fingers toward one's face or body. This contrasts with the beckoning signal in many other parts of the world where the arm is extended, palm down, and the fingers are moved in a scratching motion.

  • To beckon a waiter, just raise the hand at or above head level. To signal that you want the check, make a motion with the hands as if you are signing a piece of paper.

  • Canadians may eat with either the continental style (fork constantly in the left hand) or the American style (where the fork moves back and forth between the hands).

  • Most of the popular gestures listed in the US section will be known, used and fully understood in Canada. The one exception might be the 'hook 'em horns' gesture known in the United States (especially in Texas), and in Italy, Africa, and Brazil.

Canada (Quebec)

  • Since the French culture is so strong in this province, certain actions associated with Europe may be noted here. A firm handshake is still the common and preferred method of greeting, but it may be done more often (e.g., at both arrivals and departures, and in all social situations). Also, close male friends may embrace lightly when meeting, and women may do the same, while adding a light kissing motion to the cheek.

  • French-speaking Canadians may seem more reserved than their American neighbors to the south, with more emphasis on all aspects of etiquette.

  • It is considered bad manners to eat while on the street.

  • To beckon a waiter, nod the head backward slightly, or raise your hand discreetly.

  • When dining, the continental style of eating will probably prevail, although some Canadians will shift the fork back and forth American-style.


  • A warm, somewhat soft handshake is the customary greeting among both men and women. Men should let the woman make the first move toward handshaking. After the second or third meeting, Mexican men may begin with or add the abrazo, the embrace along with a few pats on the back. Women friends will embrace lightly and pretend to kiss a cheek.

  • In some areas of Mexico, you may encounter an unusual addition to the handshake where, after gripping the palm, the two people slide their hands upward to grasp each other's thumbs.

  • Many Mexicans are 'touch oriented.' This means they may linger over a handshake, they may touch the forearm or elbow, or they may even casually finger the lapel of the other person's suit. All these touches merely signify a willingness to be friendly nothing more.

  • If a man stands with his hands on his hips, it suggests hostility.

  • Deference is shown to the elderly, so give way to them in public and don't object if they are waited on first.

  • Never visit churches or religious sites while wearing shorts, tank tops, or cut-off shirts or shorts.

  • The national drink in Mexico is tequila. To drink it properly, here is the procedure: place a pinch of salt in the depression of your left hand between thumb and forefinger; then lick the salt and quickly take a drink of tequila; follow this by sucking on a lime wedge.

  • Patience is important; avoid showing anger if and when you encounter delays or interruptions.

United States

  • A firm handshake, accompanied by direct eye contact, is the standard greeting in the United States. Occasionally, among very good friends who have not seen each other for long intervals, women may briefly hug other women, and men may quickly kiss the cheek of a woman. Males rarely hug one another, however. Occasionally, men may shake hands with the left hand either covering the handshake or lightly gripping the forearm.

  • Direct eye contact in both social and business situations is very important. Not doing so implies boredom or disinterest.

  • Americans generally respect queues and will form lines in an orderly fashion. To shove one's way into such a line will probably generate both anger and verbal complaints.

  • There are two well-known insulting gestures in the United States. Both are recognized in all parts of America. They are:

  • *The middle finger thrust

    *The forearm jerk.

  • Waving 'hello' or 'goodbye' is done by extending the arm, palm facing down and waving the hand up a down at the wrist joint. Another variation is to raise the arm, palm outward, and move the whole arm and hand back and forth like an upside down pendulum. This may be important to know because in many countries this is a signal for 'no'.

  • Many Americans become uncomfortable with periods of silence. Therefore in business or social situations, if a gap occurs they will quickly try to fill in with conversation.

  • Winking in America can signal diverse messages: flirtation, friendliness, amusement, or to signal 'I am just kidding.'

  • When driving, automobiles are equipped with flashing lights as turning signals. If these are not operating, or if cyclists wish to signal for a turn, the proper procedure is as follows: extending the left arm straight out of the driver's window means 'I plan to turn to the left,' but if the arm is bent upward it signals 'I plan to turn to the right.'

  • Beckoning can be done by either raising the index finger and repeatedly curling it in and out, or by raising the hand (palm facing inward) and waggling the fingers back toward the body. Either is acceptable.

  • To call a waiter, just raise one hand to head level or above. To signal that you want the check, make a writing motion with two hands (one hand representing the paper, the other making a writing motion).

  • When dining, many Americans are taught to keep the left hand in their lap and eat with the right hand. It is permissible to sit at a table with both wrists resting lightly on the table. When engaged in deep, close conversation, two people might even lean forward, with elbows on the table, but strict practitioners of etiquette in America frown on this.

  • It is considered impolite to use toothpicks in front of other people.

  • It has become an important courtesy in the United States to ask permission of your host or hostess before smoking.