I’ll never forget one of the first nights I went out in Barcelona in a group of Americans and locals. One of them, a guy called Nacho, was telling us about the best places around for drinks and dancing, often describing the vibe with his hands—without using actual words. At that point in my life, I was fluent in Spanish but not in Spanish hand gestures, so translating Nacho’s opinions was all but impossible. The whole situation was more than a little confusing, but hilarious on the whole, and that was that.
The more I travel, the more I notice that there’s more to communication than spoken words. And believe it or not, body language is far from universal—for better or for worse. So beyond learning those few handy phrases in the local language, you may also want to get familiar with a few location-specific gestures before your next trip. Here are a few of our favorites from around Europe.
The “bellissima” gesture used in so many movies, where Italians give their fingertips a light smooch and then fling their hand out in the air in front of them, is actually used in France, Germany, and Spain, too. Typically, it’s a compliment, used in reference to something sexy, delicious, or wonderful, most often for food. Want to try it on your next trip? Keep it understated for best effect.
The Under-Eye Tug
This gesture, wherein someone puts a finger just under his or her eye and pulls the skin down a little, is typically a warning. In Spain and Italy, it’s fairly friendly and is mostly a hint to watch out for someone clever or someone who’s watching you. But in Greece and France, the gesture is more ominous, signaling that the person is “on to you (and your no good ways).”
This common gesture means something is a secret, and you shouldn’t talk about it. That said, in Italy it can also mean, “watch out!” and in France and Belgium it indicates a clever person or a potential threat. It can also mean that you and another person have a shared secret no one else knows. But tapping under your nose with two fingers is a gesture used in France to mean something’s too easy.
The Upwards Cupped Hand
In Italy, you’ll often see locals making an upwards, full-hand point with straightened fingers and thumb about a foot from their faces. This nonverbal cue usually indicates a question or doubt. But be careful—if the person starts moving that cupped hand up and down from the wrist and seems annoyed, he or she could also be calling you an idiot.
The Double Lobster Claw
In France, one way people show they’re scared is to hold their hands out in front of them and tap their thumbs against their closed fingers like crustaceans using their pincers.
The Hand Fling (with Cheek Suck)
Around Europe, but particularly in Spain, flinging your hand back and forth with loose fingers and wrist at about shoulder height while sucking in your cheeks means something is over the top, crazy, or painfully expensive. This gesture is often a wordless response to a question or a reaction to a story. In France, locals use the same hand gesture without sucking in the cheeks for bad news.
In Spain, locals want to be in crowded places (bars, restaurants, clubs). But that doesn’t mean Spaniards don’t love to complain about elbowing their way through a crowd. They’ve even perfected a simple gesture for use in places so noisy that you can’t communicate with words: They hold up their hands at about shoulder level and tap their fingers to their thumbs.
Chin flicking is confusing in Europe because the meaning varies widely not only by location, but also depending on the context of your conversation. In Italy and France, the borderline-rude gesture means you’re uninterested, bored, or bothered, but in Portugal it just means, “I don’t know.”
How and where you touch your face means a lot. In Spain, patting your cheek means someone is shameless or cheeky, literally “hard-faced.” In Italy, locals poke their cheeks with an index finger and twist to mean something is good, clever, or beautiful, but in southern Spain it’s an insult that questions a man’s masculinity. Placing two fingers just above your eyebrows is also an insult in Spain and means you think someone is stupid. In France, cupping your hand around your nose and turning it back and forth indicates you think someone is drunk.
In Germany and Austria, locals will tuck their thumbs in and do a two-fisted drum roll in the air just over the table to wish someone good luck. Also, knocking lightly once or twice on a table or desk works as a greeting when you can’t shake hands. In a classroom setting, knocking when professors enter a lecture hall is considered a sign of respect. A knock at the end of a meeting or lecture usually means thank-you.