5 Confusing Gestures From Around The World

Watching your own body language – the way you say things and how you act can be difficult when traveling in foreign cultures, but that’s nothing compared to trying to understand gestures from other cultures! Here is a list of gestures around the world that I’ve found rather confusing…

Confusing Gestures

The Indian Yes-No-Maybe shake

Confusing Gestures

Confusing Gestures

If you ask for a yes or no question, expect to get more confused than before you asked.

You’ll barely ever get a straight answer, just the typical loose shake with the head that says “yes and no” at the same time.

I found this so confusing!

“Ne” in Greece Means Yes

In Greece, I often found that even when they spoke English to you, they always said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Greek.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem, if it wasn’t that “ne” actually means yes…

Most countries in Europe have similar words for no: No, Nein, Nej, Nei etc. so this was definitely confusing.

The Head Toss and Tounge Click in Balkan

The Tongue Click was an annoying gesture that I experienced often while in Bosnia and Croatia – it’s common in Balkan, Turkey and to some extent Greece, and can be difficult to understand at first.

This short arrogant tounge click simply means no, and is often by westerners seen as a lazy and arrogant gesture.

Another common gesture is the head toss, which often comes together with the Tongue Click.

They toss their heads back and click their tounges, as a way of saying “no” or “no we don’t have it”.

It really looks arrogant and lazy, but I’ve had friends from Croatia and they acted the same to each other all the time, to them it’s just the way they say no.

Some countries, like Turkey, exaggerate even more by raising their eye brows.

The Bent Finger in Hungary

When asking for directions, instead of a straight hand and then pointing to the left, they do it all in one gesture with one finger.

If they mean straight and then turn left, they put out their index finger bent towards the left.

Not very confusing, but I thought it was pretty funny.

Bulgarian head nod.

For some reason, they have done the same thing but opposite. The head nod up and down means “no”, and the head nod from side to side means “yes”.

This gets pretty bizarre sometimes when the other person can’t speak English very well and explain!

Tourists Who Don’t Speak English Annoy Me

Yesterday, I was – again, approached by a girl asking me something – what she was asking was impossible for me to know, since she was speaking French.

I said that I spoke English, but she didn’t want to understand, and continued speaking French.

When I smiled helplessly and said again that I didn’t understand, she looked at me as though I was a complete idiot, and walked off in a huff.

This is the fourth time in four weeks that I’ve met people from European countries traveling through Malaysia without being able to understand or speak one word of English.

This is something which fascinates (and I admit, annoys) me.

I don’t expect them to speak fluent Malay – I can’t do that myself, since it’s not something you learn when you plan to only stay for a few weeks.

But I do expect them to speak a little bit of English.

I have understood that this for some is a touchy subject: why should we expect other people to speak English just because we do?

I can answer to that, perhaps from another perspective.

I’m Swedish – English is not my mother language, and I do not think that people should understand my own language just because I speak it.

For me it’s not even about that, it’s about finding an easy way for two individuals from complete different countries and cultures to communicate and get along.

I have found English to be the most widely spoken language to get by with while traveling, and have been able to make many friends from all parts of the world thanks to being able to speak English.

I understand that they wouldn’t speak to me in English while I was in France or Germany, I would be in their country after all.

But it does confuse me when someone from another country than the one I’m in expects me to speak in their language when we are both in a complete different part of the world …

I am surprised to see so many Europeans traveling the world without understanding one word of another language than their own.

I’m amazed that they dare, and that they seem to get away with it, but I can’t help but feeling a bit annoyed, and wonder how they would react if I started replying to them in Swedish?

Seeing a man standing at the airport screaming and demeaning a young Balinese man in Russian – a few years back – really got on my nerves.

The Russian man was unhappy with something to do with the luggage that he was taking on one of the many great discounted airlines, and was complaining to the Balinese man – only that he did all of this in Russian, getting more and more angry with the guy for not understanding.

The Balinese man was trying to explain in English, but without any success.

Of course people can travel without wanting to understand anyone apart from other travelers from their own country – if they want (although I think they’re missing out by not trying to even learn English basics), but when they expect you to speak their language, and get annoyed when you don’t – it’s really NOT ok.

I would love to know what you think – both native English speakers and those who speak other languages.

(photo credit: 1)

31 Responses to 5 Confusing Gestures From Around The World

  1. I'm curious February 13, 2011 at 11:03 am #


    Do you have some vid of those gestures or links to YouTube? That would be most interesting!


  2. Priyank February 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Hi Sofia!
    I rolled out laughing when I read about the Indian yes-no-maybe head shake. It makes no sense but after a while one gets used to it. 😀 I also found that if I asked a question and the Russian person didn’t know the answer, they would make a frown or upset face. Maybe this non verbal communication is reserved for foreigners…

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:44 am #

      Haha yes, after a while I noticed that I started copying them doing the same thing when someone asked me for something..!

      After you get used to it it’s rather charming in a way, but still, when you want an answer it’s still annoying.. 😛

      Thanks for adding the Russian frown gesture!

  3. inka piegsa February 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    In Turkey, if you shake your head it means: say again. To say no, you toss yozr head back and click your tongue. There are a sin fin of confusing body gestures around the world and sometimes, if you are not careful you can be in trouble.

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:39 am #

      I didn’t know that shaking your head meant “say again” in Turkey, maybe I wasn’t aware of it, I’ll definitely look for it next time.

      Thanks for adding that to the Turkish gestures, interesting.

  4. Yvonne February 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    I like the tongue click! A Turkish friend told me that the tongue click accompanied by raising eyebrows means yes and without means no. But I think that was just a hoax… 🙂

  5. Budget Your Trip February 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

    I always found the Arabic way of summoning you to come closer to be very confusing. They shake their hand at you in a way that makes you think they want you to go away, when it actually means the opposite.

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:28 am #

      Haha that is so confusing!

      I experienced something similar in a small village the other week in Laos.

      An old woman waved to me to come over because she wanted to give me a banana, but she waved her hand the opposite way from what we’re used to, gesturing that she wanted me to go away from her.

      It took me a while to understand what she meant.. 😛

  6. George Lessard February 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    The Inuit of Canada raise their eyebrows to indicate yes… and lower them while squinting their eyes to indicate no.

  7. Andi Perullo February 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    I wanted to pull my hair out soooo many times in India b/c of that yes no maybe head shake haha.

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:36 am #

      I know, after a while I just gave up.
      And then, when I came back home, I soon realized that I had started doing the same head shake..!

  8. Magda February 14, 2011 at 1:24 am #

    In Polish the informal word for ‘yes’ is actually ‘no’ (format word is ‘tak’) and I know it confuses lots of visitors 🙂

  9. Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:34 am #

    Really? I didn’t know that, thanks for explaining and sharing Magda 🙂

  10. Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:40 am #

    Really? I didn’t know that, thanks for explaining and sharing Magda 🙂

  11. Sarah Wu February 14, 2011 at 6:56 am #

    Woe those can be confuse sometime. LOL Interesting to read about it.

  12. Laurence February 14, 2011 at 1:11 am #

    I used to work with a team of Indian software developers, and the yes/no headshake thing made progress reporting a bit of an issue – any question like “will it be finished on time” was usually met with a yes/no headshake. The Bulgarian reverse head nod sounds even more confusing though, whilst there is no reason for one version to indicate in the affirmative, breaking that particular bit of body language programming must be a challenge!

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 14, 2011 at 1:33 am #

      Haha oh I can imagine that must have been pretty frustrating!
      Doing body language the reverse way is always confusing, and the yes and no gestures are just impossible to me…

  13. Theodora February 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    The Ancient Greeks had a backward nod for assent. I’m always confused by the beckoning gestures here in Bali — our Western one is very rude. And thumbs-up for hitch-hiking not welcome in many places around the world.

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 15, 2011 at 3:25 am #

      Haha yeah I’ve had problems with the thumbs-up too before.

      Recently I got 200 dollars out in one dollar bills at a currency exchange office, because I gave her thumbs up as an OK, and she misread it and thought I wanted it all in one dollar notes..!

      Thanks for adding the Ancient Greek gesture.

  14. Joshua Johnson February 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

    The Indian head shake is my fav, I also enjoy doing this confusing gesture myself if my wife asks me if I am going to do the dishes…

    • Sofia - As We Travel February 15, 2011 at 3:26 am #

      That is so sneaky! I should try it myself sometime to Nathan 😛

  15. manonthelam February 15, 2011 at 4:05 am #

    I like these! There are so many out there. I taught in the Philippines for 5 months, and I learned pretty quickly that when a student said “yes” and jerked their head back at the same time, they actually meant “no”…

  16. Nataliesayin February 15, 2011 at 4:50 am #

    Number three is definitely familiar to me. Other half is Turkish and he does it all the time. Worst thing is, I find myself doing it when I am talking to other westerners and then it is even more rude!!

  17. Rease Kirchner February 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    That opposite head nod/shake would completely throw me off. Nice article, very helpful and amusing.

  18. Angela February 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    LOL so true, the Indian way to “shake” yes is hilarious!

  19. enrolled agent cpe February 16, 2011 at 12:41 am #

    Good thing you shared your travel observations, as this can be a great help especially for those who are traveling for the first time in those countries.

  20. Alice February 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    The last one must be very confusing=)

  21. Ryan February 20, 2011 at 5:34 am #

    I’m totally loving the Yes-No-Maybe shake. Too funny!

  22. Dina VagabondQuest February 20, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    I’ve heard of the Indian one, and even try to practise it, but I think I still get it wrong. The Bulgarian one sounds so confusing. The tongue clicking sounds like fun to practise!

    I was confused with the Japanese “no” at first. It’s “iie”, while in many language, that kind of sounds means yes (ya, yep, etc).

  23. Dr Evil July 23, 2011 at 3:39 am #

    Although I am Bulgarian, I came to the US when I was 10 and completely forgot the opposite head nods/shake thing. We also have the head toss with tongue click, I hadn’t forgotten that, but when I went back to visit when I was 14 i got confused as hell. As I was walking with a friend once, he asked if I had an email and I nodded my head.. he remained silent because it was a no, and then I was expecting him to ask for my email, and added, “yes”. He laughed because it was like shaking your head for “no” and saying yes after a small pause.

    For those asking what the head toss + tongue click looks/sounds like, it’s a slight but quick moving of your head back (and bringing it back to original position) while making a sound with your tongue scraping against the top front of the roof of your mouth. Hard to explain, but I never thought of it as disrespectful that’s for sure.