Worldsmart: Gestures around the World

Body gestures have different meanings according to the country in which they are expressed. We shall seek to examine the proper body etiquette in the nations of the world on a per continent basis. We shall begin our review with Europe.

NOTE: The information provided here does not attempt to generalize a whole population of a country. The information is provided for entertainment purposes only.

- Gestures in North America
- Gestures in Europe
- Gestures in Central and South America
- Gestures in the Mid-East and Africa

Mid-East and Africa

Gestures expressed throughout the continent of Africa and the culturally diverse Middle East vary greatly because of the huge land distances and different nationalities living there. However, we shall seek to present below various general guidelines for the countries receiving the most foreign visitors.



  • Space relationships among males will be much closer than North Americans and Europeans are familiar with. Egyptians will tend to stand close and if you move away, this may be seen as a sign of aloofness. On the other hand, men and women stand farther apart than in the United States and Europe.

  • Men in Egypt tend to be more touch-oriented, thus a handshake may be accompanied by a gentle touching of your elbow with the other hand.

  • The right hand only should be used for eating. Throughout most of the Middle East, it is the custom to reserve the left hand for bodily hygiene.

  • Many Middle Easterners have what North Americans and Europeans consider as "languid eyes". It may appear that the person's eyes are half closed, but this certainly does not express disinterest or disrespect.

  • Try not to sit with your legs crossed, because it is considered an insult to show the sole of your shoe to another person.

  • Many women in Egypt still observe the traditional practice of having their husband walk slightly ahead of them.

  • Tapping the two index fingers together (side by side) can be considered as a crude gesture which says, "Would you sleep with me?"

  • It is common to smoke in public, and be considerate to offer your cigarettes to others present.

  • It is considered impolite to eat everything on your plate while dining. To leave food on your plate symbolizes abundance and is considered a compliment to your host.

  • Many Western eating habits are common in Egypt, but it is still traditional to eat finger food only with the right hand.


  • Western-style greetings are used here, but be aware that Ghana consists of a multitude of ethnic groups, thus each group has its own unique culture, customs and language.

  • Young children are taught not to look adults in the eye because to do so would be considered an act of defiance.


  • When you shake hands with a child, you are showing his or her parents respect.

  • When entering someone's home, especially if there is carpeting, it may be customary to remove your shoes first. Always remove your shoes before you enter a mosque.

  • Men and women rarely show public displays of affection.

  • To signal to someone, put your hand out with your palm down, and curl your fingers in and out in a scratching motion.

  • The "thumb's up" gesture has a vulgar connotation in Iran.

  • To signal "NO", move your head up and back sharply. To signal "YES", dip your head down with a slight turn.

  • Try not to blow your nose in public. Also, try not to slouch in a chair or stretch your legs out in front on you. Avoid pointing the sole of your shoe to others.


  • Warm handshakes are customary in Israel, and good friends will normally shake hands with friendly pats on the shoulders or back. Israelis generally do not embrace or hug each other when meeting unless they are very close friends.

  • People in Israel may stand quite close when talking with each other. It is also common to touch another person on the arm when conversing, as touching is customary among friends.

  • An Israeli insult is to point down at the upturned palm of one hand with the forefinger of the other hand, implying that "grass will grow on my hand" before the words of the speaker come true.


  • The most common form of greeting is the handshake, however some local tribes show greetings by gently slapping palms and then gripping each other's fingers which are cupped.

  • Never use your left hand to accept a gift.

  • Always ask permission before you take a photograph of a local resident.


  • Among senior citizens and the more traditional Jordanians, the "salaam" gesture may be used. This is done by taking the right hand, touching the heart, then the forehead and then gesturing forward. The verbal saying is, ""salaa alaykum", or "peace be with you".

  • When dining, it is common to refuse additional servings of the meal at least two times, but then accept the third offer if you do actually wish more.

  • It is considered to polite to leave small amounts of food on your plate.

  • Coffee in the Middle East may seem thick and strong to foreigners. This coffee is served in small cups which are refilled often. If you wish to signal that you do not wish to have any more coffee, then just tip the cup back and forth with your fingers.

  • If you cross your legs, do so at the ankles or the knees, because it is considered improper to place one ankle on the other knee. 


  • A handshake is the common greeting, along with a nod of the head. Men may tip their hat when greeting a woman.

  • Personal space is smaller than in the West, thus people of the same gender tend to stand much closer together.

  • To signal "YES", nod your head. To signal "NO", point your head sharply upward and raise your eyebrows.

  • If you raise a closed fist in the air, then this is considered a rude gesture.

  • If you lick your little finger and then brush it across your eyebrow, you are signaling that someone is a homosexual.


  • Men and women only shake hands if a woman offers her hand first.

  • Watch your host for clues and directions, however it is customary to remove your shoes before entering a room.


  • Greetings are important in Morocco but they vary according to location. In bigger cities, good friends greet each other by brushing or kissing cheeks. Many kisses signals close and sincere ties of friendship. In rural areas, you may see handshakes accompanied by touching the heart with the right hand

  • When dining, guests may be offered water and a basin from their host to wash their hands.

  • It is quite common to eat with the fingers particular types of food. However, follow the actions of your host, and always only use your right hand.


  • People in Nigeria always try very hard to please their guests, thus they are congenial and hospitable and respect punctuality.

  • Among the Yoruba ethnic group, an important guest will be greeted by applause.

  • A vulgar gesture in Nigeria is called the "hand push", wherein the hand is held forward at shoulder or head level, with the fingers spread.

  • The Yorubas will wink at their children if they want them to leave the room.

Saudi Arabia

  • If a Saudi man is accompanied by a veiled woman, he will most probably not introduce her.

  • Many Saudi men accompany their greetings with an embrace and cheek kissing.

  • The "salaam" greeting is also popular among the elderly in Saudi Arabia.

  • Saudis will signal "YES", by swiveling their head from side to side. They signal "NO", but tipping their head backward and clicking their tongue.

  • When walking down a corridor or street, your Saudi host may guide a Western male by gently holding his elbow or even taking his hand and continue walking along hand-in-hand. this is a sign of respect and friendship.

  • Joint meetings may be encountered wherein several groups of business visitors may be seated in separate parts of the same room, with your Saudi host moving from group to group.

  • Your Saudi host may interrupt your meeting or conversation, leave the room and be gone for 15 to 20 minutes. This usually means that he has gone for his daily prayers.

  • Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive vehicles.

  • Crossing your legs or putting your feet up on furniture may be seen as a sign of disrespect.

  • An insulting gesture is to have your hand up, palm down, fingers spread, with your index finger bent down and pointing outward.

  • Again, avoid showing the sole of your shoe to someone as the sole is considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body.

  • It is not proper to show bare shoulders, stomach, calves and thighs.

  • Smoking in public is not common in Saudi Arabia. However, there are some places where the communal water pipe, or "hooka" may be passed among those present.

South Africa

  • The handshake is still the common form of greeting, in this country of Black African tribal, Dutch and English cultures.

  • The raised, right-handed fist has become a world-recognized symbol for "Black Power". In 1990, it received international exposure when South African black leader Nelson Mandela toured Europe and North America.

  • Remember to cover your mouth when yawning.

  • Visitors to the international airport in South Africa will often say that porters approach them with both hands held in a cupped shape. It may appear that the porter is soliciting a tip, but this gesture is merely a signal of humbleness which means, "The gift you may give me (for carrying your bags) will mean so much that I must hold it in two hands".


  • Arab customs prevail in the North of the country, where handshakes are warm and gentle. Good friends of the same gender may embrace one another. However, men will only shake a woman's hand if she offers her hand first. Actually, a man should not touch a woman in public.

  • Avoid showing the bottom of your shoe to another person.

  • Arabic is often a dramatic and emotional language, and conversation may be perceived as vigorous and enthusiastic.


  • Among the Swahili-speaking residents of the coast, the handshake is customary. Local men do not normally shake hands with women in public, but foreigners are forgiven for doing so.

  • Do not use your left hand when giving or receiving a business card, gift, envelope or such.


  • There is limited contact between men and women in public.

  • Dining is socially important in Zaire, and a person may be judged on his conduct while eating.

  • If your hosts uses his fingers while eating, do the same, but only with your right hand.


  • Among the locals, kneeling before the elderly or social superiors is customary.

  • Among some tribes, the gesture of gentle thumb-squeezing may be observed, along with clapping.

  • People of the opposite sex do not often have physical contact upon greeting.

  • Direct eye contact between the opposite sex should be limited as it holds a romantic connotation.

  • It is improper to point directly at someone or something.

  • Be sure to wash your hands before and after eating because the right hand is often used to pick up food from a communal plate or bowl. To spit in public is a great sign of disrespect.


  • The handshake is common and accepted. Local women and girls may even curtsy upon greeting.

  • Clapping one's hands may be seen as a sign of thanks and politeness.

  • Do not maintain direct eye contact with someone. This is considered rude, particularly in rural areas of Zimbabwe.