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Gestures Can Speak Louder than Words: Body Language in the Arab World

Close up of a woman with a hand placed over her heart.

While Arabic may be the official language of many Middle Eastern nations, body language is also an important means to communicate in Arab culture.

Placing your right hand on your heart is a warm greeting that can be done by itself or after a handshake. The gesture conveys sincerity, respect, and that the person really appreciates your presence. In Arab culture, handshakes are not only reserved for meeting or greeting someone, but they’re also used when you say “goodbye.”

If a person you’re trying to greet is far away, holding an open hand at ear level is the equivalent of a “hello.” It can accompany the verbal greeting “assalamu alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you.”

Once you’re engaged in conversation, there are several hand gestures that are helpful to know: Touching your fingertips together while holding out your hand means “wait” or “be patient.” And if your friend or colleague is feeling stressed about something, you can flick your hand outward away from your body to express that there are things in life that are not worth worrying about.

Call it the Arab version of “Don’t worry, be happy.”

One of the more unusual gestures is when Arabs pretend to bite their hands. This is a sign that they are very frustrated, though it’s often used to add dramatic effect to a story when gossiping. And if you just don’t understand what the other person is saying, you can hold you hand out with your palm down and twist it up, which means “how” and “why.”

When driving on a crowded roadway, a common occurrence in this region, knowing the signal for “slow down” can be very useful. Hold your fingers in a pear-shaped position with your fingertips pointing up at about waist level and move the hand slightly up and down.

In addition to hand gestures, other body language used in daily life includes a quick snap of the head upwards accompanied by a click of the tongue, which means “no” or “I disagree.” By contrast, tilting your head to the side with a smile usually means “yes.”

So, while you’re learning Arabic words like “shukran” (thank you) and “masalamah” (goodbye), remember there are other ways to communicate and make yourself feel a part of the local culture.

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