Lost in translation: How to avoid offending the locals on your next trip

Is there anything more satisfying than a friendly high five after a job well done? What about an enthusiastic thumbs up to a good friend? Can you really beat the simple pleasures of a pat on the back?

Here in Australia we have plenty of hand signals that we employ in our everyday lives. Most of these are pretty friendly, while some (like those involving your middle finger) are somewhat less pleasant.

But did you know that many of the simple gestures that we take for granted in the land Down Under actually have vastly different meanings in foreign countries? It’s true! And it might just get you into a spot of trouble if you don’t take the time to do your homework before jetting off on your next holiday.

Here is a basic guide to some of our favourite gestures and hand signals, and their potential alternate meanings. Keep these in mind when you’re travelling and you’ll hopefully be able to avoid any nasty misunderstandings.

The Point

Are you one of those people who just can’t help but point excitedly when see something new and interesting? When you visit the Taj Mahal, are you going to be the one pointing it out to your travelling buddies, just in case they missed it?

While we love your enthusiasm, you’ll want to take care where you choose to point, and to what (or whom). Pointing is considered rude in many cultures, particularly in the Middle and Far East.

The Thumbs Up

The good old thumbs up has been making a bit of a comeback lately, with more and more people choosing to pull this classic sign of approval back out of retirement after it reached the height of popularity in the 1980s.

However, did you know that a thumbs up is actually a very offensive gesture in some parts of the world? Iraq is one country where a thumbs up often carries a negative meaning – a fact that has caused trouble for occupying US troops in the past.

West Africa, Russia, Greece and Thailand are other nations where you’re better off keeping your thumb in your back pocket. While the level of offence caused will vary from place to place, you’ll want to make sure you have a good travel insurance policy if you’re the kind of person who just can’t resist pulling a Fonzie.

The Wave

Say you meet a new friend on the road, and want to greet them with an extended wave of your outstretched palm. Woah! Hold on there traveller! The last thing you want is to offend someone who may have a different perception of that signal.

An open palm is a big sign of disrespect in Greece, where its meaning dates back to the Byzantine Empire. The long and short of it is that you’ll be better off with a simple head nod and a friendly “hello” – ideally in the person’s native tongue, if you can muster it.

Do you know of any other hand signals or gestures that might be misinterpreted overseas?