In Germany and presumably most of the Western world, the signal the players of Germany’s national football team wanted to send when they placed their hands over their mouths for a World Cup team photo was clear: “FIFA is muzzling us,” as Germany coach Hansi Flick then said.
The mouth-covering gesture came in reaction to FIFA forbidding the team’s captain from wearing the One Love armband, which was used in Qatar to take a stand for human rights and protest against discrimination against LGBTQ people.
But putting a hand in front of your mouth is interpreted differently in host country Qatar and neighboring Arab states, where the gesture rather stands for taking back what has been said, or to express the idea that certain words shouldn’t be pronounced at all in the first place.
Qatari TV pundits were therefore happy to mock the German team, especially following their elimination from the tournament. They also noted Germany’s double standards: While the national team criticized Qatar for its human rights record, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck was striking a new energy deal with Qatar.
In any case, it is always a good idea to find out the meaning of a gesture before using it in another country and culture.
A provocative thumb
The thumbs up gesture can be particularly explosive. It is known as a sign of approval in Germany and many Western countries, but in Australia, parts of Africa and Asia, the raised thumb represents the phallus and is therefore a vulgar insult. In Turkey, it is even used to invite someone to engage in sexual practices.
A similarly misleading gesture is to form a circle with the index and the thumb. For scuba divers, this is known as the “OK” sign. The hand signal has a positive connotation in many countries, such as in Germany, where you could use this gesture to praise a tasty meal in a restaurant.
Yet a Belgian or Tunisian chef would rather be insulted with this gesture, since it stands for “zero,” or something that is absolutely worthless.
In Arab countries, this gesture is actually threatening, because it signals to the other person: “Watch out, otherwise I’ll hit you!”
The Japanese simply interpret the sign as a symbol for money.
On the other hand, in southern Europe, in Brazil or in Russia, it is considered an insult.
In Germany, if you want two beers, you’ll show that to the bartender by simply stretching out your thumb and index finger. But as shown in Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds,” people in the UK start counting with the index finger as the first digit and end with the thumb to represent five, so you’d probably get a single beer with that same gesture. Meanwhile in China, you could fill an entire table, because the gesture symbolizes the number eight. But in Japan, stretching out those two fingers is an insult.
The crossed index and middle fingers behind your back can also have different meanings: in Brazil and Canada, it is a way of wishing for luck. In Sweden, Switzerland or Spain, this signals a willful lie. In China, the same hand sign stands for the number 10.
Not just a peace sign
The index and middle fingers are raised and parted to form the well-known V sign, commonly called the peace or victory sign.
But it too can lead to misunderstandings. If the palm of the hand is facing inward toward the person doing the sign, it suddenly becomes an insulting “Piss off!” gesture in British-influenced countries like Australia, Malta or New Zealand.
In countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the gesture can often be seen in photos, as it shows that the people being photographed feel happy.
Yes or no?
Even the nod of the head has its pitfalls. In most countries it is taken as an affirmative “yes.” But that’s also how people say “no” in Arab countries, as well as in Turkey or Greece.
And in Japan, you don’t deny an offer by shaking your head, but rather by waving your hand back and forth in front of your face like a windshield wiper.
So if you go on a trip abroad, you should do some research beforehand. Because if you only communicate with hands and feet, you can end up putting your foot in it.
This article was originally written in German.