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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?

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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 May 12 at 17:43
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@MeNoTalk Do tell.. –  Spehro Pefhany May 12 at 18:03
    
Interesting question, but I fail to see how this is on-topic. Would be a better fit for: area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/66612. –  andra May 13 at 8:10
    
Among scuba divers it means lets go to the surface. –  andra May 13 at 8:10
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2 Answers 2

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.

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As an Italian, I've never heard of this being inappropriate in any part of Italy. –  Federico Poloni May 12 at 20:20
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@FedericoPoloni As I have mentioned to one of your countryment the only place mentioned is Sardinia. –  Karlson May 12 at 20:25
    
I can't imagine Afghanistan or Iran will be getting much tourism. –  Kermit May 13 at 15:38
    
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). –  isomorphismes May 13 at 17:22
    
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. –  Federico Poloni May 23 at 7:36
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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.

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The "ring sign" meaning what's in English called "the OK sign"? (Index finger touches thumb and the three other fingers spread out) –  isomorphismes May 13 at 17:23
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I should note that the "ok" sign can be offensive in other countries... –  chue x May 13 at 19:57
    
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... –  Phil Perry May 13 at 20:19
    
I've never had a problem in Malaysia / Indonesia when pointing to things with my index finger. –  Josh B May 14 at 2:10
    
@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. –  Madlozoz May 14 at 14:48
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