Three Gestures and Their Meaning in Different Cultures

Ever since the time when primitive peoples started developing communication by means of body language – as the “gestural hypothesis” suggests – hands and body in general have played a big role in communication as we know it, often accompanying spoken language to varying degrees.

It is well-known that in some cultures hand and arm movements are a big part of the communication experience – have you ever spoken to, say, an Italian and counted the many different gestures used during the conversation? However, if not read correctly, gestures can be dangerous or detrimental just as much as they can facilitate communication. A very positive gesture in one culture may have a completely different meaning in other cultures.

Read on to find out the meaning of three common gestures in different parts of the world… It might save you from committing an embarrassing faux-pas!


The Seashell

This gesture is made by bringing the fingertips of your hand all close together, with the palm facing towards yourself, and (this part is very important) moving your hand up and down; from the listener’s perspective, your hand almost looks like a seashell.

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Italians use this a lot – often even if they are on the phone – to mean a variety of things, among them mainly “What the heck do you want?” or “What the heck are you saying?”. It has almost become a symbol of Italians’ tendency to make gestures while talking.

Whilst it is somewhat negative for Italians, this gesture is actually used with a positive meaning in Turkey, where it indicates that something or someone is beautiful. A variation of this gesture, with the palm of your hand facing upwards, is used in parts of the Middle East to mean “Slow down” or “Be patient”.


The Okay Sign

This sign is known all over the world and consists of the tips of your thumb and index finger touching each other to form a circle and your other three fingers pointing straight up in the air.

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In most Western countries, this gesture is a very positive one and means “All is good/okay”. It can also be used as a question, again to ask “is everything okay?”. Alternatively, the gesture can have a neutral meaning, for example to mean the number zero, as in France.

When used in the Middle East, though, it has a very negative connotation, as it indicates the evil eye and is often accompanied with cursing.


The Finger Snap

This gesture is made by pressing your middle finger on your thumb with your index finger pointing up and your ring and little fingers resting on the palm of your hand. The movement results in a snapping sound.

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What is very interesting about this gesture is that it can have different meanings depending on the context it is used in. It is definitely a way of attracting someone’s attention, maybe because you had a brilliant idea, and it can also signify that you finally remembered something you were trying so hard to recollect.

However, in some other contexts, this gesture can come across as very rude, for example, if you deliberately use it to call someone’s attention (we advise against using it to call for a waiter!). It also has negative connotations if used to tell someone to hurry up.


As we have seen above, hands and arms are very important in communication, and their occurrence in films or video material in general may be controversial if the meaning of gestures is not researched carefully. If you need help localising your entire video and not just its script into another language, give us a call on +44 (0)207 294 7710 or send us an email to and we will be happy to help!

Finally, what about you? Do you know any interesting gestures from your culture? Leave us a comment below, we would love to know!


Photo Credit: microgen via iStock