All across the world, human beings use their hands as a means of communication. We learn many hand signals naturally as we grow. For example, by the age of three most American children have comprehended the act of waving their hand as a sign of saying “hello.” As they age they learn more complex hand symbols like the middle finger as a derogatory gesture or the thumb and pointer finger connecting to make a circle, which usually means “OK.” However, while these gestures are common in America, there are certain gestures that have entirely different meanings in other cultures, some of which don’t even exist in America.
The “OK” symbol
The “OK” symbol pictured to the right is a common symbol used by Americans to agree to something. To us this symbol is entirely harmless. In certain countries however, Brazil and Iran specifically, this gesture is a slightly harsher symbol than the American middle finger. In these countries, whoever the back of the hand is pointing towards is who the obscenity is directed towards.
In America, people commonly call someone over by raising one finger in a beckoning gesture. However, in Japan, this action is meant to be used exclusively for dogs. In fact, using it on a human would be highly disrespectful, as you would basically be calling them a dog.
This gesture has an even more extreme meaning in the Philippines. There, it is also meant to be used exclusively for dogs. If you use it towards an officer or any figure of respect you can actually be arrested.
In Buddhism, there are many drawings and sculptures of hands with eyes on them. These are called hamsas. This is because Buddhists believe that hands have a very significant meaning to them, and each finger represents a different force in the world. The thumb represents fire, the pointer finger represents air, the middle finger represents ethereal beauty (or harmony), the ring finger represents the Earth, and the pinkie represents water. This symbol first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia. Buddhists believe that they can find harmony in the world through their fingers, since they can connect to the forces of the world through them.
“Rock on” Hands
At rock and roll concerts, you can often see people proudly displaying their pinky and pointer finger raised into the air as a sign that they love the rock music. Interestingly, there are many Latin countries where people use this as a discreet sign to tell someone that their spouse or lover is cheating on them.
Almost all across the world, slapping someone is a very obvious sign of anger, disrespect, or just an act of violence. However, in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, the slap has an entirely different meaning. The slap is used almost exclusively by teachers in Taoism as a teaching tool. This is because in one of the traditional Taoist teachings, a teacher slaps his student after no other teaching method works. After slapping him, the student has a revelation and all of a sudden the teachings make sense to him. Teachers of Taoism use this method to give their students epiphanies.
The Peace Sign
The Peace Symbol
Finally, the peace symbol, which can be seen being proudly displayed at any peaceful protest or on the Instagram of most 14 year old girls, is a symbol that represents peace and love. Back in the 40’s though, this symbol had a very different meaning. Due to the rising tensions of the time, this symbol ended up being used by officials to symbolize “V” for Victory. However, in the UK, Australia, and South Africa, this symbol is actually highly insulting, especially if the back of the hand is directed towards the person you’re insulting.
In closing, be careful with using hand symbols in different areas. Hand gestures that we commonly use are often insulting or just confusing to foreigners. If you aren’t cautious of which symbols you use, you may end up insulting someone or accidentally impersonating a Daoist teacher.