Are there any cultures in which the "thumbs up" hand gesture is offensive?

  • In the USA it's common to give a thumbs up to say "Yes, this is good" or "Thanks" or convey another appropriate positive meaning.

    Are there cultures in which the "thumbs up" gesture a) would not be understood, or b) would be offensive to the local people?

    I should tell my story when I did a thumbs up to a group of Iranian people, most of them were religious people or covered women. Man that was a story

    @MeNoTalk Do tell..

    Interesting question, but I fail to see how this is on-topic. Would be a better fit for:

    Among scuba divers it means lets go to the surface.

  • You can probably use Wikipedia to determine the exact implications of the gesture. From the information:

    In Afghanistan, Iran and parts of Italy, the gesture is regarded as an obscene insult equivalent to what the middle finger signifies in most of Europe, especially when combined with a sweep of the arms. In these places, it roughly means "Sit on my phallus" and carries the same stigma as does raising the middle finger in the west. The sign has a similarly pejorative meaning in parts of West Africa, South America, Iran and Sardinia, according to Roger E. Axtell's book Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World." In southern Sardinia, where this gesture is noted for being particularly obscene, a hitchhiker would be well advised not to wave his thumb in the air expecting a car to pick him up, or he may find himself under the wheels of a large truck.

    Though it states that it may be offensive in Israel I haven't found this to be the case.


    As per the latest edit to the quoted Wiki page:

    The sign has a pejorative meaning in parts of West Africa, Iran, and Greece according to Roger E. Axtell's book Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. In practice, most Greeks nowadays recognize the positive connotation of the sign due to international exposure. Any perceived pejorative meaning of the past is lost in contemporary use. Despite that, the sign is still very rarely used by native Greeks for its positive meaning (and never for the pejorative).

    The information may still be subject to change at a later date.

    As an Italian, I've never heard of this being inappropriate in any part of Italy.

    @FedericoPoloni As I have mentioned to one of your countryment the only place mentioned is Sardinia.

    I can't imagine Afghanistan or Iran will be getting much tourism.

    Karlson, you seem to be suggesting that Kevin should have "just googled it". But Wikipedia's English-language bias and varying level of authenticity are well-known problems. It's totally reasonable for him to ask the question here, where original answers from experts (eg Sardinians) can be generated. (No original content allowed on Wikipedia, so a Sardinian would need to find a printed source to verify his/her personal experience).

    Update: I have asked two friends from different towns in southern Sardinia (both in the area around Cagliari) and they have never heard of that either.

    I have lived in Venice and friends of mine have a picture of the pope giving a thumbs up, so I am pretty sure it means the same to them as it does to us..... either that, or the pope was really pissed at having his picture taken.

    Good thing Facebook is blocked in Iran then, I guess. Wouldn't be so nice if the "Like" symbol meant "sit on my phallus." Afghans, I guess, will have to get used to it.

    The paragraph you're quoting has disappeared from the Wikipedia article. It appears it wasn't exactly well-sourced...

    @NajibIdrissi Updated with the latest version. :)

    In 1982 in Israel I was told it was rather rude, about like the US middle finger, and that when hitchhiking the correct gesture was to point with the first two fingers in the intended direction of travel.

  • Not offensive, but in Malaysia you use the thumb to point at things (using the index is rude).

    So, you would be pointing at the ceiling/sky.

    EDIT: If needed, in Malaysia or Indonesia, use the "ring sign" from divers. I can not guaranty this would be understood in the mountain.

    EDIT: Of course, if you travel back to ancient Rome, this is an imperial prerogative. Don't do that. Unless you really are Cesar, that is.

    The "ring sign" meaning what's in English called "the OK sign"? _(Index finger touches thumb and the three other fingers spread out)_

    I should note that the "ok" sign can be offensive in other countries...

    It's amazing that there aren't more international incidents caused by the use of a gesture that is perfectly innocuous in your culture, but horrific in another. Thumbs up/down, "OK", pointing at someone or yourself, rubbing fingers together ("money" in the US), even waving with your left hand. Best bet is to carefully read up on the subject before leaving your country. It almost makes one want to stay at home...

    I've never had a problem in Malaysia / Indonesia when pointing to things with my index finger.

    @JoshB Relax. pointing the index at an object in Malaysia is basically as rude as pointing the finger at someone in Europe. Good mannered people don't do it but they won't canne you for that :D I've seen Indonsians pointing with the thumb, but usually, they use the index.

    @PhilPerry: I would hope most people anywhere in the world would realise that strangers from a foreign country might do strange things.

    FWIW, In northern part of India, middle finger is used to point at things..

    @chue the OK sign has been repurposed by white nationalists in the US and is no longer at all benign.

  • Regardless of what cultural norms have been in the past, the meaning of the thumbs-up sign is getting strongly influenced by the Internet. The biggest example is Facebook, which uses the gesture to indicate someone 'likes' a certain post:

    facebook like

    With this in mind, I would no longer worry about misusing the sign anywhere except the most distant regions without access to the Internet.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM