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 May 12, 2014 at 17:43
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    @MeNoTalk Do tell.. May 12, 2014 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.
    – user141
    May 13, 2014 at 8:10
  • Among scuba divers it means lets go to the surface.
    – user141
    May 13, 2014 at 8:10

3 Answers 3


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.

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    As an Italian, I've never heard of this being inappropriate in any part of Italy. May 12, 2014 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, 2014 at 20:25
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    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. May 23, 2014 at 7:36
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    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.
    – user42562
    Apr 21, 2016 at 9:26
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    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.
    – Fiksdal
    Apr 21, 2016 at 10:42

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) May 13, 2014 at 17:23
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    I should note that the "ok" sign can be offensive in other countries...
    – chue x
    May 13, 2014 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, 2014 at 20:19
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    I've never had a problem in Malaysia / Indonesia when pointing to things with my index finger.
    – Joel B
    May 14, 2014 at 2:10
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    @PhilPerry: I would hope most people anywhere in the world would realise that strangers from a foreign country might do strange things.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 22, 2016 at 8:48

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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