Talk to the Hand: Body language

Today, let’s try an experiment. Hold your hand out with your palm facing away, fingers stretched up. Oh, come on, no one’s watching you. Are you doing it? Now tell me, what you could be doing with this gesture. Are you motioning someone to stop? Are you awaiting a high five? (Believe me, if I could send you one over the internet, I would). You could be signaling a silent “hello.” What this gesture means all depends on context. If you were to gesticulate in this manner in Greece, you’d run the risk of creating some international enemies.

In Greece, this hand gesture is called a moutza, and is said to have originated from a time when criminals were shamed by having palm-fulls of cinder (moutzos) rubbed all over their faces. In modern times, this gesture is used to denote displeasure with the recipient. How much displeasure must be gleaned from the context of the situation.


Am I trying to scare you away from traveling to Greece? No. what I am doing is trying to show you the importance of learning to speak a language with your body as well as your voice. Actions tend to speak louder than words, especially if that action is offensive.  It isn’t enough to learn to say “I’m ok” in another language, because if you are touching your thumb and index finger to form a circle while saying it, depending on the cultural context, you could be saying:

  • In the US/UK: “okay”
  • In Belgium and France this means zero, though, in some parts of southern France, it can be taken to mean worthless
  • The Japanese use this gesture to refer to money
  • In Greece, this hand gesture can be used to suggest homosexuality
  • If using this signal in Turkey, prepare for a fight, because it is a very rude gesture that signifies a part of the body I’m not entirely sure I’m aloud to mention here.

Those are just a few examples of the different meanings for one simple hand gesture—don’t even get me started on the different meanings for a “thumbs up” hand signal—amidst an entire lexicon of body language. It isn’t my intention to keep anyone from traveling or getting excited about learning a new language, I just want to inform you that what you may think of as proper or common courtesy may differ from what other cultures do. So when learning to speak a new language, make sure you learn how to gesticulate it too.

Have you ever had a body language faux “paw” (sorry, I know that’s a dumb joke, I just couldn’t help myself) in another country, or with someone from another culture?