This sign is common in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain and carries an 'up yours' interpretation. Winston Churchill popularised the 'V for victory' sign during the Second World War, but his two-fingered version was done with the palm facing out, whereas the palm faces towards the speaker for the obscene insult version.
This can mean 'two' to an American, 'Victory' to a German and 'Up yours' in Britain
Its origin can be traced back centuries to the English archers who used these two fingers to fire their arrows. It was considered the ultimate degradation for a skilled archer to be captured and, rather than be executed, have his two shooting fingers removed. The two-fingered V sign quickly became used as a goading signal in battle by the British to show their enemies 'I've still got my shooting fingers.'
In parts of Europe, however, the palm-facing-in version still means 'victory' so an Englishman who uses it to tell a German 'up yours' could leave the German thinking he'd won a prize. This signal now also means the number two in some parts of Europe, and if the insulted European was a bartender, his response could be to give an Englishman, American or Australian two mugs of beer.
To Touch or Not to Touch?
Whether or not someone will be offended by being touched during conversation depends on their culture. For example, the French and Italians love to continually touch as they talk, while the British prefer not to touch at any time unless it's on a sports field in front of a large audience. Intimate embracing by British, Australian and New Zealand sportsmen is copied from South American and Continental sportsmen who embrace and kiss each other after a goal is scored and continue this intimate behaviour in the dressing rooms. The moment the Aussies, Brits and Kiwis leave the field, it reverts to the 'hands off - or else' policy.
British men will only touch each other on a sports field when someone scores a point or a goal and then it's a full embrace, kiss and the odd grope. But try it on in the pub and see what happens.
Dr Ken Cooper also studied touch frequencies in a number of countries and recorded the following results for touches per hour - Puerto Rico 180, Paris 110, Florida 2, London 0.
From our research and personal experience, here's a ready reckoner of places where it's acceptable to touch or not:
USA & Canada
Parts of Asia
How to Offend Other Cultures
When it comes to inadvertently offending other cultures, Americans usually take first prize. As mentioned, most Americans don't have a passport and believe the rest of the world thinks like them and wants to be like them. Here's a picture of George W Bush using the signature gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team, of which he is a supporter. The index finger and little finger represent the horns of the bull and this football gesture is recognised by most Americans.
Showing this American football gesture is a jailable offence in Italy
In Italy this gesture is known as the 'Cuckold' and is used to tell a man that other men are screwing his wife. In 1985, five Americans were arrested in Rome for jubilantly dancing and using this gesture outside the Vatican following the news of a major Longhorns win in the USA. Apparently the Pope was unimpressed.
People do business with people who make them feel comfortable and it comes down to sincerity and good manners. When entering a foreign country, concentrate on reducing the broadness of your body language until you have the opportunity to observe the locals. A simple way to learn and understand cultural body language differences is to record several foreign films and replay them with the sound off, but don't read the subtitles. Try to work out what is happening then watch again and read the subtitles to check your accuracy.
If you're not sure how to be polite in someone else's culture, ask the locals to show you how things are done.
Cultural misinterpretation of gestures can produce embarrassing results and a person's background should always be considered before jumping to conclusions about the meaning of his or her body language and gestures.
If you regularly travel internationally, we recommend Roger Axtell's Gestures: Do 's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World (John Wiley & Sons). Axtell identified over 70,000 different physical signs and customs globally and shows you how to do business in most cultures.