When "OK" Is Not OK

Understanding gestures in Europe

Italians, in particualr, will use gestures in any situation to get accross their point.
Italians would consider themselves half-mute if they couldn't use their hands while talking—it gets really dangerous when they're driving while attempting to talk on a cell phone with one hand and gesture with the other.
While many Europeans are fond of gesticulating (Italians especially), be very careful using any gestures. No single aspect of communication seems to have such diverse meanings and interpretations across different cultures.

With a few exceptions, polite—or at least innocuous—words in one language rarely just happen to translate into something unimaginably offensive in another.

Gestures, however, are another matter entirely.

Recommended books on the subject
Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger E. Axtell
Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century by Norine Dresser
Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries by Terri Morrison

The two-fingered "V" for victory symbol is fine palms-out. If you make it with you palm facing toward you, you'll offend any Brit—it's their version of "giving someone the finger."

The thumb-and-forefinger-circle that means "OK!" to you means "Up yours!" or "You're an asshole!" in some cultures (especially when held upside down).

Never, ever hold out just your forefinger and pinkie raised to make "horns" (or the "I love you" gesture from sign language). Depending on how you hold your hand and where you are, you're either casting the Evil Eye on someone, warding against it (which insults the people around you, implying that they are casting one), or calling someone a cuckold.

In most cases, of course, your gestures won't mistakenly be offensive; they'll simply be misconstrued. When holding up their fingers to count, most Europeans start with the thumb for "one." Holding up just your forefinger means "wait a sec" in most countries. You may be trying to order one beer; they'll think you aren't ready yet.

A southern European gesturing "come here" looks like they're shooing you away. People waving good-bye in Europe hold their hand out, palm facing up, and repeatedly slap all four fingers as a group toward themselves; to an American, that means "come here."

Confused? You should be. There are whole books on this subject (see the box above to the right). Gestures are an integral part of communicating in Europe, especially the south, but until you learn the European body language, it might be best just to keep your hands to yourself.

Body Language—When Is Close Too Close?

Mediterranean men are much more touchy-feely than Americans might be used to.
Mediterranean men are much more touchy-feely than Americans might be used to.
Proximity is a relative thing.

Be prepared that in northern Europe, especially England, people require a larger sphere of personal space than most Americans do and are rather adverse to physical contact. Dear old friends will rarely greet one another with anything more than a firm handshake and warm smile.

When you get to Sicily, though, total strangers will be throwing their arms around you and greeting you with a wet kiss on each cheek.

Of course, those are both stereotypes, but ones that often hold true.

The farther south you go, the more people touch.

Manly, macho Mediterranean men will often link elbows and walk arm-in-arm with each another down the streets.

Teenage boys, oozing hormones and unnecessary aftershave, will zoom up on their scooters and greet their pals with that double cheek peck so beloved of Hollywood types.

They probably aren't gay, effeminate, or even metrosexual. (In fact, most Mediterranean men are about as heterosexual as is humanly possible; their blood is 90% testosterone.) That’s just the way their culture is. Men touch.

As always, be observant and let the locals be your guide as to how to act—when to be politely standoffish and when it's acceptable to sling an arm around someone's shoulders and plant a big, wet, frencher on them (note: only if you know them very, very well or are very, very drunk).

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in April 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.