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A character goes to make a perfectly polite, helpful gesture, or perhaps simply a cool one, and ends up making a rather unfortunate rude or shocking one instead. Maybe someone punching the air or pointing keeps their hand open while doing it, resulting in the Nazi salute, or someone using the peace sign ends up swearing at the people behind them. (This one only applies to British characters, or oblivious foreign ones.) Alternatively, a clap on the back may be taken as a genuine attack, resulting in the well-meaning character getting clobbered.

Bonus points if this results in a Not What It Looks Like moment. For Western viewers, Bicep-Polishing Gesture is likely to be this. Also the "V" Sign. Compare Nonverbal Miscommunication and Crazy Cultural Comparison.


Comic Books




 The third runner up in the Major Causes of Intergalactic Conflict poll for the past few millenia has usually been Misinterpretation of Simple Hand Gestures. One man's "Wow! This pasta is fantastico!" is another's "Your momma plays it fast and loose with sailors."

  • Briefly discussed in Help I'm Trapped In An Alien's Body! in which the protagonist, in an alien's body due to a Freaky Friday Flip, still serves his position as goalie in his soccer game. At some point he notices two other aliens watching off to the side, and they wave at him every time he sees them. He then begins worrying about it, because "Sure, waving is friendly on Earth, but maybe where they come from, it means 'We're gonna kill you!'"
  • Also lampshaded in Discworld, where inter-species communication has always been difficult. Apparently for trolls, saying hello involves a firm smack on the head, while a friendly handshake is actually an severe insult to their mother.

 "It's amazing how long it took humans and trolls to work this out."

    • In The Last Continent, Rincewind has just been magically aided by a talking kangaroo to impressively win a sheep-shearing contest. The losers timidly try to explain that they can't exactly pay off the bet they made with him, and Rincewind tries to reassure them with a friendly "No worries" type gesture. Unfortunately, he does so while holding the shears he was just going wild with, so it comes off as rather more intimidating than he intended.
    • In the Made For TV version of The Colour of Magic, Twoflower's handbook warns him that making a 2 with your index and middle fingers is rude if the back of the hand is facing forward but palm side is fine. Unfortunately he didn't read that until after using it when talking the bartender.
    • Finally, in Johny Maxwell trilogy, Johny tries to placate a hostile alien by showing empty hands and smiling. The alien returns the gesture... spreading her clawed arms and baring her teeth.

Live Action TV

  • In Scrubs, JD tries to punch the air in the "Booyah!!" style to the deaf father of a deaf patient, as the Janitor was making the relay in sign language for them. He doesn't really make a fist as much as... Well, the Janitor calmly says "Nazi salute."
  • Friends: Rachel goes to shake the hand of her prospective employer, and accidentally grabs his penis. (It Makes Sense in Context.)
    • Ross also tries to tell his British fiancee "time out," with hand gesture. Offended, she says "up yours too!"
  • Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip: the plastic Santa the show has put up for its Christmas show is supposed to be waving but is giving the Nazi salute.
  • On Star Trek the Next Generation, Picard recounts a story in which he tried to greet an alien ambassador with one of her culture's hand gestures, but ended up accidentally propositioning her instead.
    • Once, when negotiating with a culture where body language was as important as words, Janeway almost caused a diplomatic incident by putting her hands on her hips, a deadly insult. Fortunately Neelix was there to pour oil on the waves.
  • Happens in an episode of Father Ted. He's ranting about something entirely innocuous, but someone sees him from outside, and the confluence of a small rectangular black mark on the window which appears to them to be directly below his nose, and his repeated hand gestures, make him look like Hitler.
  • Seinfeld: Elaine's boss Mr. Pitt raises his hand in a...familiar way...to indicate to his shareholders that their stock will rise "high". The fact that his upper lip is smeared with ink in the middle doesn't help.
    • And wears a riding suit. And says "We WILL annex Poland by the Spring, at any cost!" (It Makes Sense in Context, I swear.)
    • Another episode has George chasing after a motorist that he thinks flipped him off. When he catches up with the guy, Costanza finds the guy couldn't help it: His broken hand was in an unfortunately crafted cast.
    • Subverted in another episode, when Kramer saves himself from the infamous Van Buren Boys by accidentally flashing their hand sign.
  • Appears on Top Gear, when Jeremy Clarkson uses a "helpful hand gesture" while talking to an American police officer during a traffic stop. (Probably not accidental, but then the traffic stop was pure Kayfabe as well...)
  • One episode of Are You Being Served has a mechanical Santa Claus who opens his arms wide to give children hugs. Problem: the arms are stitched to the coat (and apparently can't be cut away without irrevocable damage). So when Santa opens his arms... Making it worse is that the robot also says, "Ho, ho, ho, little boy! Have I got a surprise for you!" (Fortunately, the robot is a mannequin under the coat. It still makes Mr. Humphries faint.)
    • Subverted in another episode, where Mrs Slocombe gives Captain Peacock the "two fingered salute". Mr Rumbold thinks she is just trying to prevent Captain Peacock from sticking his finger up her nose. (Again, It Makes Sense in Context.)
  • Example from Community episode Home Economics, Annie does a had shaking gesture that is highly suggestive.

  Shirley: Shake them in your mind!

  • A first season episode of JAG had Meg tell a story about how her Italian boyfriend got very confused by the "hook'em horns" sign being made by everyone at a University of Austin football game she took him to. (To many Europeans, the exact same gesture means "I'm screwing your wife.")
  • On The Goodies, Tim (as Winston Churchill), gives the "two fingered salute" gesture when he was actually indicating that he wanted a cigar. Graeme then has the idea of turning his hand around to create the iconic "V for Victory" symbol.
  • In an episode of Farscape, the crew land on Earth and hide out in an abandoned house in the USA. They find a photo of someone making the Middle Finger gesture, and believe it to be a greeting. Hilarity Ensues as they go out and meet the neighbours.


  • A story in Readers Digest told of an army officer who saw a truck coming towards him with three soldiers in the cab; a violation of the safety rules. He held up two fingers to indicate that there was only supposed to be two people in the cab. A confused looking driver returned the peace sign as he drove past.

Newspaper Comics

  • In Dilbert, Dilbert became a boss and enjoyed his newfound ability to command his underlings with a wave of his hand. However, they misinterpreted his wave and threw a guy out the window.
  • In Zits, Jeremy injures his middle finger and is told by the school nurse to keep it elevated. After an off-panel "Same to you, Duncan!", she hurriedly adds, "On second thought, maybe don't keep it elevated".


  • Dutch comedian Herman Finkers had a sketch on when he tried to gesture to a man in the car next to him that there was a fly next to him, resulting in him doing half a dozen different rude gestures, one after the other.
    • For instance, his attempts of communicating to the man that the fly was flying around his ears, and then maybe suggesting what finger to kill it with. It ended with the man being thoroughly insulted and using a handy near-by axe to bash in Herman's tail light. His response? "Is it dead?"

Web Comics

  • A recent Girls with Slingshots has an envisioning of Chris the Pirate's sweet attempts to speak ASL going horribly wrong as he places his fingers in an attempt to sign "I love you" but does the sign for "The Shocker" instead.
    • Although, on the bright side, that would probably just give Melody ideas.

Western Animation

  • One Pinky and The Brain story homages Around the World in Eighty Days, and Pinky explains a bunch of offensive gestures (which are actually nonsense) in the country they arrive at to Brain, who winds up doing all of them at the wrong time because (1) he never even paid attention to Pinky, and (2) he was being swarmed by bees at the time. Cue the awkward hand swatting.
  • When the Storm Hawks visit Terra Wallop, they accidentally discover that extending both hands palms outward towards someone - the typical 'calm down' gesture - means "I am challenging you to a duel".
  • An episode of The Wild Thornberrys has Eliza and Darwin visiting a group of chimps, with Darwin telling her she has to be careful about the gestures she makes. Eliza doesn't listen and inadvertently ends up insulting one chimp, and challenging the other to a fight for dominance.

 No, Eliza, don't wave!

  • In the Kung Fu Panda holiday special, Po discovers that many of his duties as the Dragon Warrior involving setting up the annual holiday ceremony are themselves very nearly ceremonies in their own right. When he's sampling foods to choose who will do the catering, Monkey passes by and waves hello; when Po returns the wave, everyone flips out and the chef he's talking to just about swears eternal revenge. It turns out that waving in that exact manner, with that hand, is the ceremonial signal for utter rejection; that the Dragon Warrior has found the food so abominable that the chef's entire village is essentially kicked out of China in disgrace.

Real Life

  • Some people unfamiliar with the Bicep-Polishing Gesture often wonder why the guy is telling his friends "Up yours".
  • Raising your thumb is an insulting gesture in the Middle East. Travellers there, avoid giving people the thumbs up sign... and hitchhikers should beware this especially. Several pictures of Iraqis giving US troops the thumbs up were misinterpreted as "being greeted as liberators".
    • Another gesture that has resulted in unfortunate misunderstandings is the fact that in the Middle East people engage each other in conversation by leaning in very close to show that you are giving the person your full attention. Unfortunately, in the Western world this is taken as an aggressive in-your-face gesture, which has resulted in American soldiers shoving away or counter-threatening what they perceive is a hostile person—to the confusion and/or outrage of the other.
  • Sometimes head-banging can go wrong in so many ways...
  • In American Sign Language, one quick way to say "bathroom" is to make the sign language "T" (Thumb between the pointer and middle fingers in a closed fist) and wave it gently side to side. Unfortunately, in Germany, that same sign is the equivalent to flipping the middle finger. Double unfortunate if someone German asks where your friend went and he had gone to the bathroom.
    • In Korea (South of course, silly...) it's almost the same, you only move your finger one to the left. Effectively flipping somebody off in the process.
    • Almost the same in the Russian-speaking world, minus the wave, although the middle finger is becoming more popular thanks to Hollywood, while the closed fist-like gesture is being relegated to being only mildly insulting.
  • The Peace symbol of the first and second fingers, if held up palm inward, is quite rude in England, and the rest of the UK for that matter. (The apocryphal story about archers during the Hundred Years War is involved but untrue.) Palm outward is fine.
    • Hilariously Margaret Thatcher accidentally did this after she had been elected as the Prime Minister of the UK. Cue tabloids showing her flipping off the British people.
    • Also considered rude in Australia - when George Bush Sr. visited Australia in '92 he attempted to make the peace sign to a bunch of Canberra farmers, and mistakenly flipped them the V instead. Though as the peace sign is made with palm facing inward or outward in the US, he probably didn't understand why the farmers got so angry...
  • The American OK symbol (thumb and forefinger touching each other to form an "O") means "you asshole" in several European cultures.
    • An example can be seen in the film Pod People, which was made in Spain. A singer makes this gesture after recording a song, only to then say "It stinks". Doing this became a running gag on Mystery Science Theater 3000 after this movie was featured. The confusing part is that he's smiling as he gives the sign.
  • In the 1970s, David Bowie created a media stir from a photo where he was waving to the crowd. Caught mid-action, the photo looked like a Nazi salute, leading to charges of fascism. It didn't help that he played with the idea to get more publicity.
    • Pick a politician who's been photographed while waving to a crowd, any politician... Folks from the opposing party will find the ones where it looks like the politico is heiling away.
    • during the Miners' Strike in the 1980's, a similar picture was used by The Sun (with its usual impartiality and strict observence of ethics and good journalistic practice) to damn strike leader Arthur Scargill.
    • See also the unfortunate freeze-frame from one of the Obama/McCain debates.
  • Some non-American cultures commonly use the middle finger to point and gesture with. Fortunately the fact that they aren't pointing at the sky lessens things a bit if the audience isn't too hypersensitive.
  • If you're a fan of the Texas Longhorns traveling abroad, resist the urge to do the "Hook 'em Horns" gesture if you should find yourself in Italy—because over there, the gesture is known as the cornuto, and is the equivalent of saying "you are being cuckolded" (in other words, your spouse is being unfaithful), a very serious insult to an Italian. People have gotten arrested for this.
    • The same applies to a lot of Latin American countries as well.
  • Depending on how one fingers certain guitar chords, it can look like that person is Flipping the Bird to anyone in front of him/her.
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