One of the biggest challenges facing many expatriates as they attempt to fit into life in a new country concerns getting to grips with the local culture. When you relocate to a country that has different rules and customs from your own country there are a large number of pitfalls that you can unwittingly fall into and, without meaning to, you can risk causing offense to the locals of your host country or, worse still, find yourself in serious trouble with the authorities.
It’s not just what you say that you need to mindful of, here’s 6 innocent gestures that could actually land you in big trouble.
1. The Okay Sign
Many westerners use their thumb and forefinger to form a circle, and use this gesture to signal that they are feeling fine or are happy with a situation. However, if you’re tempted to do this when living in countries like Greece, Turkey, Brazil or the Middle East, don’t! In many areas of the world this gesture is viewed as highly vulgar and is often used to indicate that you are calling someone homosexual.
Beware of protruding fingers. In many areas of the world pointing something out with your finger is considered incredibly vulgar and it is best to avoid doing this altogether wherever you are. If you wish to highlight something, indicate it with an open palm. Never be tempted to summon someone to you by using an outstretched finger it is so offensive in the Philippines that it is punishable by arrest.
3. Thumbs up
In many areas of the world a thumbs up signal is interpreted as meaning “Okay” or “I agree.” However, in Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, South America, the Middle East and parts of Italy and Greece it is an obscene insult meaning “sit on it” which is their equivalent to holding a middle finger up.
4. The V Sign
In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand an inverted peace sign, i.e. with your palm facing towards you is an offensive gesture that has a similar meaning to a raised middle finger.
It is believed to have its origins in the battle of Agincourt (1415) when the English fought the French with longbows. The French apparently threatened to cut off the arrowing-shooting fingers of any English solders they caught and the English retaliated by waving their two fingers in the air at the French in a taunting gesture.
5. Raising your hands with your palms facing out
In Greece, showing five spread fingers with the palm facing out is offensive. This is called moutza and it dates back to Byzantine times when prisoners were paraded through the town with their faces covered in charcoal or excrement. The dark material was applied to their faces with their own palms. Today, it is one of the most common gestures of insult among Greeks.
It’s not just Greece where this gesture should be avoided. In Pakistan, showing someone the palm of your hand represents a curse, in the Persian Gulf it is an insult mainly used by women and in Mexico showing someone your palm while repeatedly moving it towards the receiver means that you are warning them that you may take action they won’t like.
6. Using Your Left Hand to eat or shake hands
Avoid using your left hand to eat or shake hands in Hindu and Muslim countries. This hand is often used by people to wipe themselves clean after using the bathroom, so it is considered to be soiled. To hand someone something using that hand is highly offensive.
Research The Culture Before You Go
Always thoroughly research the culture and traditions of a country before you move there in order to avoid embarrassing yourself, or others. Our expat destination guides cover all the etiquette and social rules you need to be aware of when living overseas and will arm you with the information you need to be polite and courteous at all times when living abroad.