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

South America



  • A warm handshake is the custom here. As men become well acquainted, the handshake might be accompanied by a light touch on the forearm or elbow. Good friends will greet with an abrazo, or embrace. This may also include several hearty pats on the back.

  • When conversing, Argentines may stand closer than North Americans or Europeans do. Also, an Argentine man may even touch the arm or shoulder, or even finger the lapel of the man he is speaking with.

  • Gestures to avoid in Argentina: -Standing with the hands on the hips suggests anger, or a challenge. -Yawning in public is rude. -Slapping the inside of the thighs near the groin is considered an obscene male gesture. -Never pour wine by grasping the neck of the bottle with the hand and rotating the hand backward so that the palm turns upward. Also, always pour with the right hand, never the left.

  • Argentines have strong national pride over their excellent red wines; if and when toasts are made, the proper gesture is simply to raise your glass to those around you and say 'salud' (which means 'health'), then sip.

  • Since one of Argentina's most popular sports is soccer, a popular gesture conveying exuberance and victory is to raise the fist upward emphatically, with the knuckles of the fingers pointing outward.

  • To indicate you have finished eating, cross the knife and fork (tines down) in the middle of your plate.


  • When conversing, good eye contact is important. To not do so is considered impolite.

  • In a marketplace, if a vendor holds his hand out, fingers extended and flips the thumb back and forth it merely means, 'There isn't any left; I don't have any more.'

  • A good, warm handshake is the traditional greeting in Brazil. However, because the Brazilians show affection easily.

  • People in Brazil will also shake hands when arriving and departing. There may also be a touching of the forearm or elbow, and often a pat on the back.

  • If you are conducting business, be certain to bring a plentiful supply of business cards because these are always exchanged. Also, during business meetings expect to be served (often) small cups of very strong coffee.

  • Since this is more of a touching society, people stand close together when conversing or when standing in lines.

  • To add emphasis to a statement, a Brazilian may snap the fingers while whipping the hand down own and out.

  • To express appreciation, a Brazilian may appear to pinch his earlobe between thumb and forefinger. For example, if you've enjoyed a meal this gesture may be used. Among Brazilians, to dramatize it even further, they will reach behind the head and grasp the opposite earlobe.

  • When carrying any article along the streets-a pair of shoes, a bottle, a box of candy-it is customary to have it wrapped in a bag or some paper.


  • Men should note that when a woman enters the room, the polite gesture is to rise and be prepared to shake her hand if she offers it. A seated woman, however, need not rise nor is she obliged to offer her hand when a man enters.

  • Yawns should be stifled or covered with the hand.

  • Holding the palm upward and then spreading the fingers signals that someone is "stupid".

  • If you pour wine, never do so with your left hand.


  • Colombian women will often substitute the gesture of holding forearms for a handshake.

  • If you are visiting on business and happen to tour a factory, it is polite to shake hands with those workers nearest you.

  • Etiquette and propriety are important in Colombia, therefore, avoid placing your feet on a table or other piece of furniture, and avoid yawning in public and eating on the streets.

  • Tapping the underside of the elbow with the fingers of the other hand suggests that someone is 'stingy.'

  • To indicate that you have finished eating, place the knife and fork horizontally across the plate.

  • Women visitors should be especially sensitive about making any glance or gesture that might be considered flirtatious.

Costa Rica

  • In business situations, formality rules. Don't expect abrazos here, and business jackets are usually kept on during business discussions.

  • Exchange business cards, with yours printed in both English and Spanish.

  • Don't ever put your feet up on any article of furniture.

  • Most American gestures-including rude ones-are known by Costa Ricans (who call themselves 'ticos'). However, one gesture generally not used in the United States is the 'fig' gesture where the hand is made into a fist and the thumb is forced upward to protrude between the forefinger and middle finger. This is a very rude gesture.

  • Local people bathe frequently each day because of the heat, and guests are expected to bathe at least once daily.

  • As in other Latin countries, the handshake is the custom upon both arrivals and departures. Good male friends will embrace (the abrazo) and good female friends will embrace and kiss lightly on the cheek.

  • Fidgeting with the hands is considered distracting, almost impolite. Same with the feet.

  • When beckoning a waiter, you may observe that some patrons will clap their hands over their heads, but that is generally considered rude.

El Salvador

  • Males are expected to rise from a seated position whenever a woman enters the room.

  • Good eye contact is important in both social and business situations.

  • Salvadorans are expressive with both hands and face, so watch for those signals that complement verbal communication.

  • Yawning in social or business situations should be avoided.


  • A 'hearty handshake' is the description often given to greetings in Guatemala. But this does not necessarily mean a strong, firm grip. Latins tend toward a more gentle grip than practiced by North Americans and some Europeans. Close male friends will also greet with an abrazo, accompanied by patting the back. Close female friends will hug lightly and brush cheeks as if kissing.

  • It is best to ask permission before taking photographs of people. In fact, some people in the countryside will request a small payment in return.

  • A soft voice is preferred to any loud, boisterous talking.

  • To beckon someone, extend the arm, palm down and move the fingers in a scratching motion.

  • One gesture that should be avoided is the 'fig' gesture. This is done by making a fist and then pushing the thumb up to protrude between the index and middle fingers. In some Mediterranean countries, this is considered a phallic symbol and is therefore terribly rude-as it is in Guatemala. However, in Brazil it is considered a sign meaning 'Good luck.'

  • When dining, it is polite to finish everything on your plate.


  • You may notice a Honduran waving an index finger back and forth in front of him, perhaps about chin level. This is a gesture signifying "no".

  • If a Honduran takes one index finger, places it near the corner of his eye and seems to tug downward gently, this is a signal that is saying 'Be careful. Watch out.'

  • Bargaining is expected when shopping.


  • The typical warm, friendly Latin handshake prevails here. Men who are close friends will embrace (the abrazo), and women friends will engage in a brief hug and cheek-kissing motion.

  • Smiles are important when meeting others, and North Americans and Europeans may find that Nicaraguans stand closer together during gatherings and conversations. This merely reflects the Latin attitude toward personal space.

  • Deference and respect is shown to the elderly with many actions and gestures: rising when they enter the room, opening doors, and giving up seats on public transportation.

  • As in other Central American countries, one obscene gesture is the 'fig.' This is the label given to the fist when the thumb protrudes upward between the index and middle fingers. It is a phallic symbol, and therefore considered an offensive and rude gesture.

  • Eye contact is important at all times.


  • A nod, a handshake, and the abrazo are all used in Panama for daily greetings. A nod and mildly firm handshake is the most common. Women friends will embrace lightly, and make a kissing-like motion to one cheek.

  • Women should avoid wearing clothing that is revealing.

  • When dining the host usually sits at one end of the table with the guest of honor at the other end.

  • Because of the long North American presence in Panama, most American gestures will be known and understood.


  • Handshaking is not only the common greeting but done, as in many Latin countries, on both arriving and departing. Men shake hands with other men and also with women. Women friends will embrace briefly and brush cheeks in a 'pretend kiss.'

  • Two gestures that may cause offense are as follows: Crossing the middle finger over the index finger as North Americans and do to signal 'Good luck.' The 'O.K.' gesture, with thumb and forefinger forming a circle is considered rude.

  • Tilting the head backward signifies 'I forgot.'

  • Winking is usually only done for romantic or sexual connotations.

  • If a Paraguayan brushes his fingers under his chin, outward, he is saying 'I don't know.'

  • Don't keep your hands in your lap while eating.


  • Both men and women shake hands when greeting and when arriving and departing. Men who are good friends will add or even substitute an abrazo or hug accompanied by some hearty patting on the back. Women will hug lightly and brush cheeks as if kissing. Children will often kiss elders as a greeting, even if they have not met before. North Americans and Europeans may unintentionally perform what has been called the 'conversational tango' with people in Peru. That is because Peruvians, and many other Latins, tend to stand very close together when conversing. This makes Americans and Europeans very uncomfortable, so they back off. The Latin follows, and the visitor retreats again. As a visitor, try to avoid this lest you silently signal to your 'partner' that you don't like him or his conversation.

  • When walking alongside a woman, 'well-bred' men will walk with a protective hand under her elbow, which she should obligingly bend.

  • If you smoke cigarettes, offer them to those around you before smoking. The same with candy.

  • If and when photographing members of the Indian population, be certain to obtain permission first. The village mountain people believe photographing children will take their souls away.

  • Shaking the hand up and down at the wrist with the fingers flapping, if done slowly, means 'What a lot!' But if done rapidly and with the elbow raised, it means 'Oh, boy, we're in for it.'

Puerto Rico

  • As in most Latin countries, people tend to stand close to one another in any social or even business setting. This relates to a different perspective on 'personal space,' with North Americans and many Europeans believing that people should stand about an arm's length from one another. If you tend to move away from a Latin first, it could be considered as offensive or insulting.

  • Men tend to smile and stare at women, which is considered acceptable, but the reverse is not.

  • Puerto Ricans tend to interrupt each other frequently and are not upset when this occurs.

  • If someone wiggles their nose, it probably means he or she is saying 'What's going on here?'

  • You will hear restaurant patrons signal for waiters by making a 'psssst' sound.


  • A warm and friendly handshake is the custom in Uruguay among both men and women. Good male friends will hug; women will do the same, adding a 'pretend' kiss on the cheeks.

  • When young people are introduced in Uruguay, girls may kiss one another, and boys may give brotherly kisses to the girls. Young men, however, will shake hands.

  • To signal to a waiter, simply raise your hand.

  • Many North American gestures will be recognized here. For example, the 'thumb's up' signal is well-known and used in Uruguay. Similarly, because of its close proximity to Brazil, Uruguayans will consider the 'O.K.' symbol a very rude gesture.


  • People greet one another here with a warm, somewhat gentle but friendly handshake. Men who know each other well may pat the right shoulder of the other person as well. Men and women who are good friends may kiss, and good women friends will hug lightly and kiss cheeks. Be sure to shake hands when arriving and when departing as well.

  • As in many Latin countries, posture while seated is important. Try to keep the feet well planted on the floor, and avoid slouching or placing your foot on a chair or desk.

  • When dining, wait for everyone else at the table to be served before beginning to eat.

  • To indicate you have finished eating, place your utensils in parallel and diagonally across your plate.

  • It is better to conduct business in person rather than over telephone.