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Accidental Unfortunate Gesture

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Know your sign language!note 
Janeway: I may never put my hands on my hips again.
Neelix: You had no way of knowing you were making one of the worst insults possible.

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, the Bicep-Polishing Gesture is likely to be this. For Brits, the V-Sign has this effect.note  Compare Nonverbal Miscommunication and Crazy Cultural Comparison. See also Cross-Cultural Kerfluffle.


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  • In a commercial for a new Hellman's Mayonnaise, the "old" Mayo is outside the diner where other condiments are gloating over the new guy. The old guy makes the "I'm keeping my eyes on you" gesture, except it looks like he's doing the British "flipping-the-bird" gesture.

    Anime & Manga 

  • 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?"
  • In his "Humournoid" tour, Ross Noble tells a story of how an unfortunate confluence of events resulted in him standing in a hotel corridor, rocking back and forth with very suggestive hip thrusts, and grunting. When he looked up, he locked eyes with a female hotel employee who was walking towards him. She immediately turned around and started walking away. His attempt to explain what was going on made things worse.

    Comic Books 
  • A Judge Dredd story has a man whose hand is trapped in the middle finger extended position. This being Mega-City One, his attempts to hide this only make things worse. Hilarity ensues.
  • In Ziggy Pig - Silly Seal Comics, one of the ways Ziggy tries to get Silly in trouble is to have Silly pose for photographs while making "funny" (read: offensive) gestures in front of monuments to Doctor Doom.

    Comic Strips 
  • In Dilbert:
    • Dilbert becomes a boss and enjoys his newfound ability to command his underlings with a wave of his hand. However, they misinterpret his wave and throw a guy out the window.
    • At one point, Wally is sent to Elbonia and given a quick course in Elbonian culture beforehand. According to the instructor, waving one's hand at someone either means "hello" or "I'd like to see your mittens on my bedroom floor, baby."
  • 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".

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Airplane!, Ted's attempt to get along with some African tribesmen starts well, with him showing the chief how to shake hands. When he tries a "high five" gesture, however, the chief takes offense and punches him.
  • In Bean, the title character comes to falsely believe that the middle finger extended is a friendly greeting in the U.S.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies movie has a similar occurrence.
  • Darkest Hour: At one point, Churchill flashes what he thinks is a victory sign to a reporter as his picture is being taken. However, he's doing it palm-inward instead of palm-outward, which his housekeeper (reading the newspaper, where the picture is on the front page) tells him actually means "up the bum." He's quite amused to learn this, and it ends up helping him as the public interprets it as part of his continued defiant stance against Hitler.
  • In Hamlet 2, the main character gets his middle finger hurt and has to keep it elevated in one of those splint-casts.
  • In the opening scene of Life Is Beautiful, the brakes on Guido's car fail, and he waves to the people in front of him in order to tell them to get out of the way. However, his car had entered a procession of fascist officials, and his waving resembled the fascist salute, causing the crowd to mistake him for Il Duce. Hilarity ensues when Mussolini himself shows up right after, to the crowd's puzzlement.
  • In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Greg makes a fist bump gesture from afar which Rachel mistakes for a Black Power salute.
  • In Rat Race, Jon Lovitz' character burns his middle finger at one point. He airs it out. Hilarity ensues, naturally. Long story short it ends with him driving Hitler's car into a group of WWII vets while he has a Hitler mustache (lipstick smear), a burnt tongue so he sounds like he's speaking Angrish German, and he is showing all of them the burned middle finger.
  • In Scary Movie 3, the white rapper puts on the hood in his sweater in front of a black audience, and it ends up looking like a Klan hood. He salutes the crowd, in what looks like a Nazi salute. Hilarity ensues.

  • From And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer:
    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."
  • 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 a 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 to the bartender.
    • In Monstrous Regiment, a truce nearly breaks down when a troll soldier tries to flirt with Jade by hucking a boulder at the back of her head.
  • 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!'"
  • In the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, Johnny 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.
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: While being attacked by alien Space Pirates, Ashby rubs his hands over his eyes. The pirates take this gesture to mean "I'd rather rub shit in my eyes than keep talking to you".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Are You Being Served?:
    • One episode 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, but 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.)
  • Arrested Development. In-universe, GOB's chicken impression is considered a vicious insult in Mexico.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "Hush", everyone has lost their voices, so have to communicate with sign language. Buffy pumps her hand up-and-down to indicate how she might kill the usual Monster of the Week (killing a vampire by stabbing it in the heart with a sharp bit of wood), but everyone just stares at what seems like an obscene suggestion, so she has to grab a wooden stake and do it again.
  • Subverted in Sky One's The Colour of Magic. Twoflower is seen to be very rich (by Discworld standards anyway) and pays for some accommodation at an Inn. He tries to make the sign for "two" but ends up throwing the reverse V, the equivalent of "fuck you" in England and Australia. But thanks to paying with his gold coins, the Innkeeper merely stares at him for a moment and corrects him.
  • Example from Community episode "Home Economics", Annie pantomimes shaking some dice in a way that is highly suggestive.
    Shirley: Shake them in your mind!
  • 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.
  • Happens in an episode of Father Ted. Ted has been accused of being racist after being caught pretending to be Chinese. When the offended party come to hear his side of the story they see him stood in the window waving. There happens to be a "perfectly square" bit of black dirt on the window which was mentioned in a previous scene. From their perspective it is directly below his nose. This combined with his wave gives him the appearance of doing a Nazi salute. After they decide to leave in anger Ted starts ranting about how they can't even be bothered to listen to his side of the story but from their perspective he now not only has a tooth-brush mustache but his angry face and hand gestures look very much like he is mimicking Adolf Hitler's public speaking style.
  • 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 fiancée "time out," with hand gesture. Offended, she says "up yours too!"
    • In another episode, Rachel is ending a job interview when the interviewer leans towards her. She misunderstands the gesture and kisses him.
  • In The Goodies episode "War Babies", Tim (who is impersonating 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.
  • 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 Texas at Austin football game she took him to. (To many Europeans, the exact same gesture means "I'm screwing your wife.")
  • Lucifer (2016): In "Trip to Stabby Town", Lucifer and Ella are analyzing the crime scene of a knife massacre. Ella begins to re-enact what most likely happened with Lucifer's help...and they both unintentionally end up in some very suggestive positions. Lucifer just smirks while Chloe's reaction throughout is a sight to behold.
  • An episode of Mad About You has Paul being shown a gesture where a guy sweeps his hand in front of his nose. While questioning what that means with a demonstration, a bypasser with whom he had already discussed before asks "Hey, buddy, you got a real problem."
  • On an early episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Mister Rogers gave a double middle finger while singing "Where is Thumbkin?"
  • Averted in the mini-series On Wings Of Eagles, where one American executive warns his friend not to try thumbing a lift as it's an obscene gesture in Iran.
  • Red Dwarf: In "M-Corp", Lister's brain is hacked so he can only see items manufactured by M-Corp. Kryten tests the limits of this blindness by holding up various objects and asking Lister if he can see it. Whenever an object is invisible to Lister, it is also invisible to the audience. The last (invisible) object he holds up causes his hand to vibrate in an alarmingly suggestive fashion. He then passes to Cat and Rimmer, whose hands also vibrate in a suggestive fashion, causing Lister to remark "I really hope that's an electric toothbrush!".
  • In Scrubs, J.D. 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."
  • 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.
  • Star Trek: Voyager:
    • In "Macrocosm", when negotiating with a culture where body language is as important as words, Janeway almost causes a diplomatic incident by putting her hands on her hips, a Character Tic for her but one of the worst insults imaginable to them. Fortunately, Neelix is there to pour oil on the waves.
    • In "Innocence", Chakotay relates how on his first diplomatic mission he eagerly studied the aliens' culture and made their gesture for "hello", only to accidentally proposition their ambassador, because the symbol had a different meaning according to one's gender.
  • 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.
  • Appears on Top Gear (UK), 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...)

    Print Media 
  • A story in Reader's 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.

    Video Games 
  • The cover of Left 4 Dead 2 had to be redone for certain markets because the finger-gesture signifying "2" was actually considered quite rude.
  • In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Mario's gesture for saying hello might have had the unintended side-effect of looking like he's doing a Nazi salute. The European version of the game changed the animation as a result.
  • European versions of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl had to edit Registeel's sprite, as the way its arm was positioned looks a lot like the Nazi salute. The same edited sprite ended up being used in all versions of Platinum.
  • The cover of Sonic Heroes had to be altered in some markets since Sonic's hand-gesture looks a lot like Flipping the Bird.
  • In Star Control II, a VUX captain will ask you to please stop nodding your head, as his species lacks that range of motion, so to them it looks like you're a mobile corpse with a broken neck.
  • Bowser's victory pose in the Japanese version of Super Mario RPG was a Bicep-Polishing Gesture. For reasons detailed under Real Life, this was changed in the English release. Likewise, the Inkling Girl in Mario Kart 8 uses the same gesture as her animation for when she successfully hits another player with an item. A patch changed the animation to a Fist Pump.

  • Because I'm Depressed: An early strip has Diego making what looks like a Nazi salute while trying to hail a cab... while wearing a shirt emblazoned with a Hindu swastika.
  • Girls with Slingshots: One strip has an envisioning of Chris the Pirate's sweet attempts to speak ASL going horribly wrong. He tries to sign "I love you" but does the gesture "The Shocker" instead. Although, on the bright side, that would probably just give Melody ideas.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Adventure Time episode "Five More Short Graybles", Tree Trunks tries to report to the Banana Guards that someone in town was making a rude gesture at her. When she returns to the scene, that person turns out to be an unoffensive statue — Shelby the Worm was just sitting upright in the middle of its fist.
  • In the Bee and Puppycat: Lazy in Space episode "Golden Eyes", a girl who is a temporarily transmogrified fish, and thus not used to having hands tries to make the thumbs-up gesture and accidentally ends up Flipping the Bird instead.
  • Bojack Horseman: During his attempts to win an Oscar, Bojack travels underwater to where the anthropomorphic sea creatures live (treated as another country with unreadable signage and an incomprehensible burbling language). Before he goes, he is informed by his PR agent that a thumbs-up sign is an obscene gesture over there, but he isn't paying attention at the time. He ends up making the gesture on live TV.
  • 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.
  • In an episode of The Legend of Korra, eccentric millionaire/escaped convict (although he'll argue the latter point) Varrick props his feet up on the dinner table. In many Asian cultures, on which the Avatar world is based, showing people the bottom of your feet is considered as bad as or worse than Flipping the Bird.
  • The Owl House: In "Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Hooty's Door", Hooty tries to teach King the dance language used by bug demons. King's attempt to replicate the dance causes Hooty to get violently angry, apparently since what King wound up saying was something offensive about Hooty's mother.
  • 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 wasn't paying attention to Pinky, and (2) he was being swarmed by bees at the time. Cue the awkward hand swatting.
  • The Simpsons: "Bart-Mangled Banner" had a donkey eat Bart's pants, and he bends over and tries to cover up... just as an American flag is being unfurled behind his bare buttocks. Bart (and his entire family) are mistaken for traitors.
  • 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.
    Darwin: No, Eliza, don't wave!

    Real Life 
  • The Japanese Bicep-Polishing Gesture, indicating confidence in one's own strength and readiness to perform an action, is easily mistaken for the obscene "bras d'honneur" gesture used in much of Southern Europe and Latin America to mean "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.
  • This video recounts a story where the uploader was rocking out in his car, then got the urge to scratch the sides of his mouth. The rocking out at the time of the scratch involved him sticking out his tongue, and he scratched both sides of his mouth at once. This mortified the female acquaintance who happened to be looking at him at that moment due to its resemblance to miming a certain sexual act.
  • 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 some countries, that same sign is the equivalent to flipping the middle finger. Double unfortunate if someone asks where your friend went and he had gone to the bathroom.
    • In South Korea 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.
    • There have been numerous incidents where people were murdered or heavily wounded because their sign language was mistaken for gang symbols.
  • 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 amusing but untrue.) Palm outward is fine.
    • Infamously, 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...
    • Also the unfortunate result of some photographs having cigarettes airbrushed out — suddenly the subject's fingers are left in mid-air in this position.
  • 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 French, it means "Zero".
    • The only country this isn't an insult in is Japan but there it means "You owe me/I need money".
    • Also, be sure to use OK with the palm of the hand facing outward. To reverse the sign (palm facing inward, fingers toward others) can be mis-interpreted as a "white power" sign.
  • In 1976, David Bowie created a media stir from a photo where he was waving to a crowd at Victoria Station upon his return to the U.K. after several years. Caught mid-action, the photo looked like a Nazi salute, leading to charges that he was a fascist. It didn't help that then-recent interviews with him revealed that he was fascinated by those ideologies (specifically, their use of propaganda, which he saw as not that different from how rock stars play to the crowds); he was in the midst of a severe Creator Breakdown at the time, and the "Victoria Station incident" is still recalled today as a low point in his public life.
  • 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.
  • The heavy metal music-associated "throwing the horns" gesture, also known as the "Hook 'em Horns" gesture among University of Texas at Austin members and sports fans, is best avoided if you should find yourself in Italy — because over there, the gesture is known as the cornuto, and is most commonly 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 heavy metal use of the gesture was popularised by the singer Ronnie James Dio, who was of Italian ancestry and almost certainly aware of this meaning, though he only acknowledged its use to ward off the Evil Eye.)
    • 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 them.
    • Similarly, many depictions of someone resettling their glasses using their middle finger (especially common in Japan) is automatically assumed to be a stealth case of Flipping the Bird. The fact that it often IS used that way doesn't help the confusion.
  • Turning your glass upside down in a bar. In America, this sends the signal "I am done drinking." In Australia, this sends the signal "I can win a fight with any man present."
  • Showing your hand to someone palm first with all five fingers extended and as far apart from each other as possible, also known as the open palm salute or "mountza". It may be meant as a friendly greeting, a hand-sign for the number 5, or a non-verbal "Stop right there", but in Greece, it's a very rude gesture, the family-friendly version of Flipping the Bird. It's used to express endearing feelings like: "You just did/said something monumentaly stupid", "You're a complete jerk" and so on. It can be made even more insulting by using both hands. It may be accompanied by an exclamation like: "Take these!".


Video Example(s):


King's obscene dance

King tries his hand at bug demon dance language. It doesn't go well.

How well does it match the trope?

4.75 (40 votes)

Example of:

Main / AccidentalUnfortunateGesture

Media sources: