Saudi Arabia: Saudis and Non-Verbal Communications

Arabic is not necessarily acquired to understand some communications in Saudi Arabia. It has been said that “To tie an Arab’s hands while he is speaking is tantamount to tying his tongue.”  If an expatriate simply observes Saudis when they talk among themselves or to others, a Saudi will many times use non-verbal communications unconsciously through various hand gestures.  I am not an expert on the definitions of all gestures Saudis may use with their hands but I will say that I have consistently seen Saudis use certain gestures that I’ve not encountered elsewhere.

One example of a typical gesture which in my experience I associate as “so very Saudi” is when a Saudi may be on his or her mobile phone and unable to perform an action or speak with someone.  To illustrate “be patient” a Saudi will gesture with his or her thumb, fore finger and middle finger closed together and in the direction of the person directed to “wait” or “be patient.”

Another non-verbal mannerism of many Saudi men is to stroke their chin when asking a favor and wishing to express “please.”

The gesture of placing the right hand or its forefinger on the tip of the nose, on the right lower eyelid, on top of the head, on the mustache or beard has the meaning of “it’s in front of me, I see it or it’s on my head to accomplish.” Another meaning is “it’s my obligation.”

Right hand out, palm down, with fingers brought toward oneself repeatedly in a clawing motion, is the sign for calling someone to come.

Placing the palm of the right hand on the chest immediately after shaking hands with another man shows respect or thanks. A very slight bow of the head may also be added.

Touching the tips of the right fingertips to the forehead while bowing the head slightly, or kissing the back of a dignitary’s hand also connotes “Respect.”

Grasping the chin with the thumb side of the right fist is a sign of wisdom or maturity.

By holding the fingers in a pear shaped configuration with the tips pointing up at about waist level and moving the hand slightly up and down signals “wait a little bit” or “be careful. ” This gesture can be observed extensively when driving in the crowded streets of the Arab cities. In such a locale, it may be accompanied by curses from an anxious taxi driver or a pedestrian trying to cross the street.

Hitting the side of one’s face with the palm of one hand, head slightly tilted, and eyes wide open, is meant as an expression of surprise. Flicking the right thumbnail on front teeth can be translated to mean “I have no money” or “I have only a little.”

Biting the right forefinger, which has been placed sideways in the mouth, may be a threat or an expression of regret. · In Western culture the “OK” sign is a positive gesture. However in the Arab world, if the gesture is shaken at another person it symbolizes the sign of the evil eye. An Arab may use the sign in conjunction with verbal curses.

Hitting the right fist into the open palm of the left hand indicates obscenity or contempt.

Placing the tips of the left fingers and thumb together so that the hand faces right, then placing the tip of the right forefinger directly on the left fingertips indicates an obscenity or insult directed at one’s birth or parentage. Specifically “You have five fathers.”

Placing the palm of the right hand on the chest, bowing the head a little and closing one’s eyes connotates “Thank You” (in the name of Allah).

Touching noses together three times when greeting is a Bedouin gesture of friendship and respect.

Two men kissing each other quickly on the lips when greeting is an expression of friendship.

A quick snap of the head upwards with an accompanying click of the tongue connotates: “No”, “perhaps”, or “What you say is false.”

By joining the tips of the right thumb, forefinger, and middle finger and then moving the configuration rapidly in front of the body, an Arab will add emphasis to his speech.

Patting another person’s shoulder with the right hand is a conciliatory gesture.

Before serving coffee, a bit of it may be poured onto the ground. This is a Bedouin gesture of sacrifice.

During the Hajj (pilgrimage), people may kiss only on the shoulders as a gesture of friendship and greeting.

Flipping the hand near the mouth and simultaneously making a clicking sound with the tongue and teeth is used to indicate that a person is not to worry.

By holding the right hand in front of the face with the back facing forward and then flipping the hand so that the palm is up, the Arab will indicate that the person asked for is not present.

If an Arab rubs his earlobe with the tips of his right forefinger and thumb, he may be asking, “Do you want me to answer the question for you?”

Placing a half closed hand in front of the stomach, and then turning it slightly connotes that the person to whom the gesture is made is a liar.

By first touching the tip of the right forefinger on the tongue and then placing it on the tip of the nose, an Arab gives a sign for a person to hurry.

Be aware of appearing to be in a hurry when you are among Arabs. For example, during a business appointment or social visit with an Arab, do not look at your watch or otherwise act as if you have little time to talk. Arabs can be very offended by this. Time is much less rigidly scheduled in Arab countries than in the U.S.

Pointing your finger or a pencil at anyone while speaking, or beckon anyone with your finger. It is considered a threat, and only animals are treated in this manner.

In closing this post, I ask for Saudis to share other gestures and their meanings that may not have been included in this post.  I would also ask expatriates to share their own experiences of seeing and learning how to decipher differing hand gestures.

12 Responses

  1. Right hand out, palm down, with fingers brought toward oneself repeatedly in a clawing motion, is the sign for calling someone to come.

    This gesture is made a lot by one of my colleagues and it makes my blood boil. I don’t appreciate being gestured at in a manner that says “Come. Now!” I personally find it to be quite rude but I also found that the 5 finger gesture is made by both the Saudi and other Asian nationalities so its very common here.

    I have seen women frequently do the lifting gesture with the 5 fingers together while crossing the road. To me it comes across in a similar manner that we in the West would call the “one finger salute”.

  2. Touching ur fingers to ur thumb abd bringing ur hand up and down in a “wait a minute” gesture can also be viewed as a hostile indicator that that person has lost patience with you and your about to get ur ass kicked…verbally generally but physically as well if you have crossed a perceived line.

  3. Very interesting article!
    A sign language…. one should really know the sign language too before visiting KSA!

  4. Haha I loved that. I live in Jordan, so we have a lot of the same gestures. Honestly though I was surprised that some aren’t universal lol… for example the clawing one, I’ll try to remember that that’s offensive to some people :S

  5. Welcome Nadine! Thanks for your comment and hope to see more.

    Regards, American Bedu

  6. hahahaha, yup! After one 1 year in Saudi and now back in the Us I DO MANY of those same gestures. I kind of pick up stuff really, really fast…and I always find myself doing the Saudi gestures when Im out and about. Infact on several occasions Ive had Saudi women around University think I was Saudi and come up and talk to me. LOL. Ofcourse, I normally wear abaya and shaylah anyway as my preferred form of hejab so I guess it could maybe be assumed I could be from the Middle East, but especially figure in the gestures…and bingo. LOL

    But, I used to love to go to the malls and people watch and study how Saudis and others talk with their hands. i really picked up a lot. hehehhee

  7. It always has been fascinating to watch Saudis talk and gesture among each other!

  8. This is very interesting! I’m preparing a presentation about nonverbal communications, and read a lot about it in Western cultures, but although I’m a Saudi I’ve never thought of these gestures I’ve been doing all my life!

  9. I’m glad this post has been helpful to you, Mohammad!

  10. hahaha,,,,there are so many differences among cultures….

  11. Hi Bedu,

    I have one I’ve been wondering about. I’ve seen some people gesture to restaurant servers by holding up their right hand and putting their left forefinger horizontally against the right wrist. It seems that this is to ask for the receipt, but before I use it, I’d like to know if this is correct and whether or not this is rude?

    Thanks! 🙂

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