Thumbs up, and other such indecencies, in Iran

Ever felt, when you were in a new place and did not speak the language, that hand signals were safer and would perhaps even take you far?

Be very, very careful coming to Iran with that stimulating notion. 🙂

The most common faux pas coming into Iran and trying to get by with gestures is the ‘thumbs up’. A thumbs up, which one might think signals that all is okay, you are happy with the result, or all systems are go, is actually the rough equivalent of ‘the bird’ in the western European gestural lexicon. Indeed, one gets the feeling it is the angriest bird you can imagine, on steroids. If you want to guarantee you get into a fight with even the most placid Iranian? Give them the thumbs up. You have been warned.

But this decidedly innocent but dangerous gesticulative faux pas is not the only one. There are a couple of others worth noting to use, and to avoid, in Iran.

One of the first gestures you will see, perhaps even as soon as the Immigration Counter on arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport, is one also widely used in the Arab world: the slight rolling upwards of the eyes, combined with a slight lifting of the eyebrow, and sometimes the upward movement of a nod. This means ‘no’. If you are asking for a visa on arrival, and get this response from the Immigration Officer, then you best make your way back to the plane you came in on. If you get this in a supermarket when asking for pine nuts, consider other options for your pesto recipe. In the Arab world, this often comes with the spoken ‘la’. I have not yet seen anything spoken with this in Tehran; it speaks for itself.

If you want to beckon someone towards you, take care how you do it. Fingers (and excluding the thumb) pointed to the ground, not upwards, is the way it is done in Iran. A ‘fingers upwards’ beckoning will not get you far; considered rude, the response will likely be the opposite of ‘come hither’.

And you know how ‘it is rude to point’ in the English tradition, but we do it anyway to point someone out from a distance? It is rude in Iran too, very rude, to point to someone with your index finger. Pointing to something or someone is not done with the index finger at all; it is done with the chin. Slightly lifting your face (chin) in the direction of the object person is the way forward.

So, if you like this post, please don’t give it a solid thumbs up. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Thumbs up, and other such indecencies, in Iran

  1. Haha, love it.
    When I first came to Turkey in he mid 90’s I used to get in trouble…
    We have the same ‘no’ gesture and the same ‘come here’ (which is like ‘sit down’ in the west.
    We also have a big no-no, and that is the tip of the thumb protruding between 1st and 2nd fingers (huge insult) – but identical to that grandparent game of ‘stealing your nose’ that we play with kids in the west 🙂


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