American Hand Gestures And Body Language – What Do They Really Mean?

American Hand Gestures And Body Language - What Do They Really Mean?

In one culture, a gesture could mean acceptance or an indication of enjoyment. But, that same gesture can have horribly negative connotations in others.

So, when traveling to a new country, it’s best to not accidentally insult someone.

You should make efforts to know what the common body language implications are every time you travel to a new country. Often, the unsaid parts of a conversation weigh more heavily than spoken words. Here are some of the most popular gestures used in the U.S., and their meanings.

Implications of Various Body Languages

1. Making Eye Contact

When someone is speaking to you, you may tend to look at their mouth or have your gaze wander. This is a sign of inattention in the U.S.

Americans love to make eye contact with the people they’re speaking to. This indicates that they are completely invested in the conversation, and that you have their full attention.

Some people consider it disrespectful if you’re not looking at them while speaking. This may differ from your home country, because direct eye contact with elders is discouraged in some cultures.

2. Sitting Cross-Legged

Sitting with your legs crossed is a mark of the highest disrespect in some south Asian cultures. In the U.S., however, all it means is that you’re relaxed.

But, the context should be considered. For example, if a man is sitting in a boardroom with his legs crossed in a wide stance, it exudes confidence to the point of haughtiness. In this case, it is generally a disliked gesture.

A woman, sitting with crossed legs at a dinner, for example, is said to be alluring and flirty. But, negating all special contexts, sitting with crossed legs is not a negative gesture in the U.S.

3. Various Head Movements

Nodding your head up and down has a couple of meanings in the U.S.:

  • When done in the middle of a conversation, it means you are listening to the person speaking. It is a form of encouragement for the speaker to continue.
  • Nodding your head up and down also indicates your agreement on a topic.

Shaking your head from side to side says you are disagreeing with someone or saying ‘no,’ But, that’s not all.

  • Disapproval or disappointment is also shown with this gesture. It is usually followed by the verse “I didn’t expect this from you.” So it’s pretty easy to make out what the speaker meant.
  • In stark contrast, some people shake their heads to show amazement. It is usually a slower movement.

4. Tilting Your Chin Up

This is one gesture we’d recommend you avoid. When done as a short-jerked movement, it can be seen as a sign of aggression. It’s best to avoid that.

But there is also a different connotation to it. If a close friend does the same gesture, then they are merely asking you, “What’s up?” or “How are you doing?” 

5. Having Your Hands In Your Pockets

In the U.S., having your hands tucked into your pockets is a very casual gesture.

In some cultures, walking or standing with your hands in your pockets is extremely rude. It says that you are extremely arrogant and people will give you the stink eye for it.

But, if you’re in the U.S., you may do that just to warm your fingers.

Implications of Various Hand Gestures

1. It’s Alright

It’s achieved by sticking your palm parallel to the ground and lightly twisting your wrist. This means something is subpar.

For example, if your friend asks you how your sandwich tastes, you’d use this gesture if it is an okay-tasking sandwich. Something you wouldn’t eat again.

It can also be used to mean approximately. So, say you ask a person what time they’d reach the bar after work. If they say 7:00 P.M., but also make this gesture, it means approximately 7:00 P.M.

It can also be used to show uncertainty in some contexts. If you ask a colleague if they can make it to the party and they respond with the ‘It’s Alright’ gesture, it means they’re unsure about their plans.

2. Pinky Promise

When someone sticks out just their pinky finger at you, it is a symbol of a promise, also dubbed as the pinky promise. It is considered to be an unbreakable level of promise and trust.

3. The Shaka or Hang Loose

When you stick out your pinky and thumb, close the 3 center fingers, and slightly twist your wrist, it is called the shaka.

The shaka is a symbol of friendship and companionship. It gained popularity in Hawaii amongst surfers, but the use slowly moved to the mainland as well.

4. Pointing With Your Index Finger

In most countries, people use their index finger to point in a particular direction. But, in the U.S., it is considered rude to point at people.

Say you’re in conversation with a friend and you want to point out a good-looking person or someone doing something silly. You should never point at them. Instead, you can try to imperceptibly nod in the person’s direction.

But, when used to indicate directions, you can go ahead and point.

5. Snapping

If you’re immersed in deep thought and you’re trying to find an elusive word, then you may snap to yourself. But, never snap at the waitstaff, or any service industry employee. It is rude to do so in the U.S.

Snapping is also used to indicate enjoyment, like when you’re snapping along to music.

6. Crossing Your Fingers

If you’re from Vietnam, then you would never even consider using this symbol. There, it is considered lewd. But you’ll see many Americans using this gesture.

Here, it means you’re wishing for luck. For example, you want the frosty machine to be in service at McDonald’s. You would cross your fingers at the drive-through in hopes that it is available. It is a symbol of good luck, though often, it doesn’t work.

Crossing your fingers behind your back means you’re about to break a promise. Say you’re making a promise, but you cross your fingers. Then you will have the freedom to break the said promise. But, don’t try to use it in combination with a pinky promise. That overrules all cheating mechanisms.

7. The Middle Finger

Also known as flipping someone off, the middle finger is an obscene gesture in the U.S. It is used in other parts of the world also, but it is most popular in the U.S.

This is perhaps the oldest hand gesture that is still in use today.

Some countries use the middle finger in place of the pointer to point at things. But, try not to slip and do this in the U.S.

Once you’ve got these gestures aced, you’ll have a much easier time understanding unspoken communication.

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