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

Gestures - The DO's and TABOOS of Body Language Around the WorldRoger Axtell, the author of Gestures: Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, has given full permission to reprint his content here.




  • While dining, keep your hands on the table. Putting your hands on your lap during dining is seen as rude.

  • To signal for a waiter in a restaurant, you should raise your hand with the index finger extended.
  • To wish someone good luck, make two fists (with your thumbs tucked inside the fists), and make as a gesture like you are slightly pounding on a table.
  • To specify the number "one", use your upright thumb.
  • While driving, a rude gesture in Austria would be to twist your finger in a motion toward your head. This specifies that you think the other motorist is "crazy"!


  • To point with your index finger is considered impolite.

  • When you meet a good friend in Belgium, you would greet them with a kiss. This would be done by brushing your lips against the other person's check three times in a cheek, the other cheek, and then back again to the first cheek.

  • When you are talking with someone, do not place your hand or hands in your pockets. This is considered rude.

  • To slap someone on the back or to be noisy are both very rude gestures in Belgium.

  • It is poor manners to put your feet on a table or chair. Also, do not try to yawn, blow your nose, sneeze, or scratch yourself in the presence of others. Using a toothpick is also frowned upon when you are with company.


  • The handshake is the usual form of greeting people in Bulgaria.

  • When dining, keep both your wrists on the table.

  • To signal NO, nod your head up and down. To signal YES, shake your head back and forth. This is the opposite of in the United States.

  • To signal someone is crazy, take your forefinger and point it to your temple in a rotating motion.

  • The signal for victory, is to make a V sign with your two fingers. This also signals the number "two" in Bulgaria.

Commonwealth of Independent States

  • A firm handshake with direct eye contact is the common greeting in the republics of the former Soviet Union. However, among close friends, many residents greet good friends with a "Russian bear hug", which would be to hug someone heartily and then kiss the person two or three times on alternating cheeks, with sometimes a final kiss directly on the lips. This is behavior accepted both towards men and women. However, in Uzbekistan, to add a kiss would be inappropriate.

  • There are 15 diverse republics within the CIS, thus certain body gestures may be influenced by local flavor.

  • When there is a public gathering, people signal their disapproval or disagreement by whistling.

  • When you are in a theatre and must pass someone within a row to get to your seat, ALWAYS pass the person facing them. Never pass in front of a seated person with your back to that person.

  • The OK sign is interpreted as a vulgar gesture in some parts of the CIS

  • To show disagreement and anger, raise your fist and shake it. To show approval, give the "thumbs up" sign.

  • Waiting in line is an everyday chore in the CIS. Thus, be polite while you are in line, and NEVER cut in front of someone else in a line.

  • Remember that most residents of the CIS are rather stoic in public, however, they are more expressive when they gather with family and close friends.

Czech Republic

  • Always shake hands while in a formal or informal atmosphere. This applies to both your arrival and departure.

  • To make a toast while dining is common, but please wait until your host begins.

  • While dining, signal that you are finished eating by placing your knife and fork side by side to one side of your plate. To signal you are just pausing, place your knife and fork in a criss-cross pattern on your plate.

  • Try to not place your elbows on the table while dining.

  • Never applaud while in a church, whether you are there for a wedding, concert, or other event.


  • When meeting someone, a firm, brief handshake is common. Children will offer to shake your hand, and are taught to make direct eye contact with their host for the first time. Always shake a woman's hand before the hand of the gentlemen in a group situation. Please stand to shake hands with another person if you are seated.

  • While driving, it is considered rude to make the following gesture to another driver: point your index finger at your temple and rotate it back and forth.

  • Formal dinner parties are commonplace in Denmark, thus dress appropriately. If you are a man, you will most likely be presented with a card detailing the name of your female dining companion who will sit to your right. Upon being introduced to the woman, please escort her to the table at the appropriate time.

  • To toast someone in Denmark, please wait for your host to begin. Then, before you sip your drink, look around at the rest of the group, or toast one person directly. Then, sip your drink and once again gain eye contact.

England (United Kingdom)

  • To signal a waiter in a restaurant for the "bill", make a motion with both of your hands as if you were signing your name on a piece of paper.

  • Loud talking and other forms of noisy behavior should always be avoided.

  • Try not to stare at anyone in public. Privacy is highly regarded in the United Kingdom.

  • To wait in line in the United Kingdom is to "queue up". You must never "jump the queue" which would be to push your way into a line of other people.

  • When drinking in a pub, pick up your change after you pay for your drink. If you leave it there, as you might in the United States, would imply that you are leaving a tip. Tipping is not extremely widespread in British pubs.

  • An offensive gesture in England would be the V for victory sign done with your palm facing yourself.


  • Emotions are not openly expressed in Finland, unless among close friends or relatives.

  • When dining with the Finnish, do not begin to eat before your host does. Also, eat slowly because you are expected to eat everything on your plate.

  • When you are dining in Finland, do not pass the salt hand-to-hand. This is considered bad luck. Instead, put the salt shaker down on the table and let the other person pick it up.

  • Do not stand with your arms folded in Finland as this is considered a sign of arrogance.

  • When yawning, always remember to cover your mouth.


  • In France, a light, quick handshake is common. You shake hands frequently in France, particulary upon arrivals and departures. To offer a strong, pumping handshake would be considered uncultured. When you enter a room, be sure to greet each person present. A woman in France will offer her hand first.

  • If on a business trip, be sure to carry a supply of business cards, as they are exchanged frequently.

  • Some common gestures to be refrained from in public in France include: chewing gum, yawning, scratching, or having loud conversations. Also, do not rest your feet on a chair or table.

  • Two vulgar gestures in France would be to snap the fingers of both hands, or slap an open palm over a closed fist.

  • When in a restaurant, you should signal a waiter by tipping your head slightly backward and saying Monsieur ("Sir").

  • When in Paris, you would signal a taxi by snapping your fingers.

  • When dining, do not eat sandwiches with your fingers. Instead, use a knife and fork.

  • Fruit is peeled with a knife and eaten with a fork.

  • The following gestures are unique to France:

  • Forming a circle with your thumb and forefinger and placing it over your nose, indicates another person is drunk.

  • Form a circle with your thumb and forefinger (the OK sign) to signify the number zero or the concept of something being "worthless".

  • Playing an imaginary flute signifies that someone is talking too much and is becoming annoying.

  • When driving, raise your hand in the air, fingers up, and rotate your hand back and forth. to let another person know you are unhappy with their driving.

  • Always remember proper decorum applies in France. The word "etiquette" is derived from French.


  • It is impolite to shake someone's hand with your other hand in your pocket. Children are often scolded for putting their hands in their pockets because this is seen as a sign of disrespect.

  • Never open a closed door without first knocking.

  • If you are in a group situation, and wish to express your thanks, clasp your hands together and raise them high above your head.

  • If you are dining in a busy restaurant and there are empty seats at your table, and no other tables available, then the host may seat other people at your table. This is a common practice in Germany, and you do not have an obligation to speak with the other people at your table, unless you feel inclined.

  • If you are talking with someone, do not chew gum. This is considered very rude. To do so would remind a German person of "a cow chewing on a cud".

  • When a man and woman walk together, the man walks on the left side of the woman. This is due to the fact that Germans consider this a romantic gesture because one's heart is on the left side of the body). However, the man will walk on the side closest to traffic when the couple are on a busy street.

  • To wave goodbye, raise your hand upward, with your palm out and wave your fingers up and down. Don't waggle your hand back and forth, because this would symbolize the idea of "NO".

  • To signal the number "ONE", hold your thumb upright.

  • In various parts of Germany, if you arrive at a dinner table and you are unable to shake everyone's hand due to the arrangement of the seating, the Germany guest will rap his knuckles lightly on the table to signal his greeting to everyone. This same gesture also applies to when the person leaves the table. Also, university students utilize this gesture in order to greet their professors in a classroom.


  • To signal "NO", slightly nod your head upward, or just lift your eyebrows upward. To signal "YES", a Greek may tilt his head to either side.

  • Greeks smile both when they are happy and when they are upset or angry.

  • If you compliment a Greek, he or she may make a puffing noise through pursed lips which is a traditional way to ward off the "evil eye".

  • The moutza is a gesture particular to Greece. It is done by waving your hand palm out and with your fingers spread. It looks as a pushing motion. The history in Greece to this gesture goes back to ancient times when the faces of enemies were smeared with dirt. Americans are familiar with this gesture as a sign to signify stopping an action.

  • Lines are not orderly in Greece, so don't be surprised if there is pushing or shoving.

  • The "OK" sign is a signal of a body orifice, so do not use this gesture in Greece.

  • To signal everything is fine, you may use the "thumbs up" sign. However, do not use the "thumbs down" sign as this would be seen as rude. This latter gesture may be used to signal your distaste for the crazy driving of someone on the road.

  • When a Greek man seeks a pretty girl, he may take his and hand and stroke his chin with his finger. If the man is very rude, he would then either wink, hiss or make a kissing motion with his lips at the girl.

  • When you are dining in Greece, note that your dessert spoon is placed above your plate.

  • Folk dancing is popular in Greece. If you participate in the dancing, this is seen as a great sign of being friendly to and appreciative of the Greek culture.


  • Hungarians are not overly demonstrative in public. Personal space while conversing is usually at arm's length.

  • To embrace someone in public in Hungary is uncommon. However, close friends may do so after not seeing for a long time. This gesture may then be followed by brushing your cheek against the other person's cheek.

  • When dining, keep both of your hands on the table.

  • It is considered inappropriate to "chink" glasses in Hungary during a toast or otherwise.

  • Men will walk to the left of a guest, or a woman while in public.


  • When you meet someone in either the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland, a firm handshake is appreciated.

  • Women are always seated first. The most appropriate way to sit is to cross your ankles or one knee over the other knee. To cross your ankle over your knee is considered informal.

  • Perhaps the most offensive gesture in Ireland would be to refuse to buy a round of drinks in a pub when it's your turn to buy.

  • When waiting in a line, be respectful and never push or shove your way ahead.


  • Italians are very demonstrative. When greeting each other, you may kiss each other's cheeks, embrace warmly and offer a long handshake.

  • When visiting a church in Italy, women should cover their heads. Also, you should not wear shorts or sleeveless blouses when touring a church.

  • When dining, the man should pour the wine, as it is considered unfeminine for a woman to pour wine. Also, do not drink too much wine during a meal because wine is seen almost as a food, thus, over consumption is considered rude.

  • To signal that you don't know or care about something in particular, simply shrug your shoulders.


  • To signal that someone is cheap, you would rub your nose with your forefinger from the bridge in a downward motion.

  • If you would like to signal that someone is crazy, you would tap the center of your forehead.

  • It is considered rude to get up during a meal to go to the bathroom, or any other room.


  • You should avoid speaking in a loud voice in Norway.

  • If you are introduced to someone, always stand during the introduction.

  • Handshakes in Norway are brief, but firm. Avoid putting your arm around someone else, or even patting them on the back.

  • When toasting in Norway, make eye contact, raise your glass up to eye level, say "Skoal", take a drink, make eye contact again, and then place the glass back down on the table.


  • An older Polish gentleman may kiss the hand of a woman upon introduction, but don't imitate this gesture. Women greet their close friends by embracing briefly and slightly kissing each other on the cheeks.

  • Poles do not speak in loud voices. Avoid chewing gum when you are talking with someone.

  • A Pole will invite you to a drink by flicking his finger against his neck. The drink is usually vodka, and this gesture is usually done among close friends.

  • Poles are not overly demonstrative, so avoid casual body contact, unless you're among close friends.


  • To get someone's attention, a Portuguese will extend their arm upward, palm out and wiggle the fingers up and down, as if they were patting someone on the head.

  • To signal that everything's OK, use the "thumb's up" sign, sometimes with both hands.

  • A gesture particular to Portugal is when you want to signal that you have enjoyed your dinner and want to compliment the hostess. At the end of the meal, simply kiss the side of your index finger and then pinch your earlobe between the kissed index finger and the thumb.

  • The chin flick gesture in Portugal is done by brushing your fingers (palm inward) off the bottom of your chin and away from your face. This signals that "I don't know". To do the same gesture, but using the thumb would mean that something no longer exists, or has died.


  • Men rise when they are introduced to a woman.

  • Business cards are exchanged often, so bring a large supply with you.

  • When visiting a Greek Orthodox Church, women should dress modestly with their arms covered. Skirts should be worn instead of slacks.

  • When dining in Romania, several toasts will be held. The Romanians eat with the fork in their left hand, and keep the napkin next to the plate, rather than on the lap.


  • The abrazo (embrace) is common among male friends, while women do the same, as well as make the motion of kissing on each cheek. Men and women always shake each other's hand upon meeting.

  • The "OK" sign with the thumb and forefinger in a circle and the other fingers outward is seen as obscene in Spain.

  • When seated, Spanish men will cross their legs at their knees. It is considered "unfeminine" for women in Spain to cross their legs.

  • Eye contact in Spain is important, but women should be careful with making eye contact with strangers, as it might signal interest of a romantic nature.

  • To beckon someone in Spain, stretch your arm out, with your palm downward, and make a scratching motion toward your body with the fingers.


  • Upon meeting someone in Sweden, offer a firm handshake and retain good eye contact.

  • When in public, a Swedish man will tip his hat to a woman, and take his hat off while conversing with the woman.

  • When dining, the male guest of honor sits to the left of the hostess and the female guest of honor sits to the right of the host.

  • When leaving a Swedish home, do not put your coat on until you get to the doorway or actually step outside. If you do so beforehand, this is seen as a rude sign of your anxiety to leave early.

  • To toast in Sweden, you lift your glass, make contact with everyone around the table, and say Skoal. Then, take a drink, make eye contact again and put your drink back down on the table. The host always makes the first toast.


  • Switzerland hosts a combination of French, Italian and German nationalities, thus, the cultural mores and gestures of each of these countries influence Swiss society. However, you should offer a firm handshake to whomever you are introduced to, including children.

  • Good posture is important in Switzerland. Do not slouch in your chair or stretch your legs out while sitting in public.

  • Do not litter in Switzerland. The Swiss take great pride in the tidiness of their environs, thus to litter is considered rude.

  • Never smoke while dining with the Swiss.

  • The elderly are greatly respected in Switzerland, so be considerate by giving up your seat on a bus or train to an older person or help them with their luggage or parcels.

  • The fondue is a popular Swiss dish. While dining, a chaffing dished is put in the middle of a table and it contains melted cheese or gravy and meat. The guests use long forks to dip pieces of bread into the cheese or gravy. Tradition says that if you drop your bread in the community fondue pot, then you must buy wine for everyone at the table. Another version of the tradition is that you must kiss all members of the opposite sex at the table.


  • It is extremely offensive to show the sole of your shoe to someone, or use your shoe to point at someone or something. This is due to the fact that the shoe sole is the lowest part of the body and something which is usually dirty and soiled.

  • If you must smoke, please ask permission first. You should neither smoke or eat while on a public street.

  • To signal NO, raise your head slightly, tip it backward, and close your eyes.

  • A unique Turkish gesture to signal that something is good, is done by holding your hand up, palm outward, and slowly bring the fingers into the thumb, in a grasping motion.

  • Before you take a photograph in Turkey, ask permission. This is especially applicable to mosques and to individuals.

  • The fig gesture is considered very rude in Turkey. This is done by clenching your hand into a fist and having your thumb protrude between the first two fingers.