Travelling Abroad: The Power of Physical Gestures

Hand gestures are frequently thought of as a universal language—one that everyone, regardless of country of origin, can generally understand to a certain extent. Even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the local language, pointing towards a train at the subway and then to your wrist will most likely indicate to a local that you need to know what time the train leaves. Read on to find out about some gestures that will be universally understood, and some seemingly common gestures that won’t exactly be well-received abroad.

Some Universal Gestures

Here are some gestures that will serve you well while travelling outside New Zealand, Australia or the United States, which can be appreciated and easily understood by locals everywhere.

  • A Smile

This simple movement of 12 facial muscles will go a long way for you in an alien country. Smiling is an effective way to convey that you mean well, making locals more willing to assist you as you tour their city. In Eastern countries especially, conveyance of emotion, through smiling for instance, plays a more pivotal role in communication than the mere verbal transference of information, that we are more accustomed to here in the West.  A smile can help you send out positive vibes as you travel through unknown countries.

  • A Head Bow

A gesture that will be understood world over, a slight bow of the head can be a positive gesture that can take the place of several common phrases, including greetings, thank you’s, and affirmative statements (i.e. “yes”, “of course”, “that’s fine”, etc.).  A head bow helps you come across as a humble, understanding individual, a necessary impression to create when you are the visitor.

  • Body Language

While travelling, maintain a fluid body language rather than a rigid one. A more relaxed body language will help you come across as a more amiable, approachable individual and will reduce the awkwardness of trying to find your way around an alien region.

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Some Gestures to Avoid

Common gestures that one may assume are universal here in New Zealand or North America, may unintentionally offend some folks overseas. Read on to find out which ones to avoid.

  • The Okay Sign

This gesture formed using your thumb and forefinger may be a normal way to tell the chef that the meal’s delicious here in America, but in parts of Europe and Asia, this gesture is not appreciated in the least. In Greece and Turkey, this gesture has a vulgar, offensive connotation, while in the Middle East it is representative of the evil eye.

  • Pointing

“Is this the way to the local place of worship?” you ask innocently pointing down the road. A gesture not very well-received abroad, pointing is extremely rude is several nations. Instead, try indicating the direction in question using an open palm—save yourself the trouble of an unintentional insult.

  • Thumbs Up

Here in the West, the thumbs up gesture is used for all kinds of things, from signaling that all’s well to wishing someone good luck. However, in many regions worldwide, including the Middle East, South America, and West Africa, this gesture is a hideously obscene one. Avoid at all costs. Try a smile to indicate your happiness or satisfaction instead of risking this gesture.

Travelling is exciting, but can prove to be quite daunting when you don’t speak a word of the local language. Employ these gestures to more effectively communicate with locals and develop a positive relationship even with those whom you may not be able to verbally communicate with. Though your language may not be generally understood, simple actions like a smile or slight bow of the head are indeed universal. Just be sure to avoid those not-so-universal gestures wherever you are.

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This blog article was contributed by Sara Collins, writer for NerdWallet, a site that helps users stay informed about the best ways to save money on travel.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.