I want to point out something to you guys — I think it's hilarious how journalists (like me!) have been explaining to y'all how "shoe throwing" is an "insult in Arab cultures." In my culture, it's simply considered a pretty strong insult to bean anything at someone's head.
Still, I came across this truly great list of gestures that are truly ambiguous — don't give the okay sign in Rio, even if you are, in fact, okay — which I think do point to the wonderful individuality of the insult from culture to culture. (Even Shakespeare is kind enough to explain the thumb biting gesture in Romeo and Juliet that kicks off the fuss between rival families in Verona: "I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it." Thanks, Will!) Below, I've listed the gestures — because some of you dainty flower types might be offended by the language (click at your own risk) — but I will say, it's very funny (and useful!) stuff.
Without further ado, or thumb biting, here they are:
1) In Greece, an outstretched palm is the equivalent of saying that you'd like to rub someone's face in ... er, the mire. Of course, here, it's "talk to the hand," which ain't great anyway.
2) In the Middle East, West Africa and South America, don't give someone the thumbs up. Totally offensive. Of course here, you just look sort of dorky if you do it.
3) You know your delicious meal in Thailand? Don't finish it! It's an insult to the host. (Bummer, right? I always end up licking up most of the leftover peanut sauce that comes with the satay!)
4) Don't greet a member of the opposite sex in Saudi Arabia. That might just be polite in general — if it's someone you don't know. Just 'cause it's sorta stalk-y and weird.
5) Okay — check this out: Don't give an even number of flowers in Russia. Seriously. Apparently you only do that for funerals, so it's bad luck. No dozen roses, dudes.
6) Don't give a gift with your left hand — almost anywhere. Poor left-handers. There's a reason the left hand was always referred to as, "sinister." It has to do with toilet paper, or the lack thereof. Look it up if you don't catch my drift. (P.S. I typed that with my left hand.)
7) Everything a-okay? Awesome. Don't tell anyone with your hand in Brazil. It means zero, goose egg, nada. (Richard Nixon famously made this blunder on a trip to Brazil in the fifties.) Oh, one more thing? It's also the sign in tantric sex for ecstatic union with the Goddess. This list is SO HELPFUL, huh?
Random travel tips:
*No matter what the gesture, you can almost always find a country where it means either the opposite, or something very different. Among older Bulgarians, when you nod your head up and down, you're saying "no," and when you shake your head back and forth, you're saying "yes."
*The middle finger is almost universally offensive. (Thanks, Caligula!)
*The "V" for victory sign should be used carefully in British Commonwealth countries — if you're hand is facing the wrong way, you could accidentally be flipping the bird. George H.W. Bush gave the "V-for-Victory" sign as he was driving through Australia in 1992.
*You're never fully dressed without a smile! The smile is a pretty collectively a nice gesture, (though Americans have been accused of smiling too much).
*Last, but not least, don't throw stuff at people. It's rude.