Body Language Basics in the United States

Mastering the English language requires more than just learning vocabulary words and the rules of grammar. You must also understand how people in the culture communicate when no words are used. Hand symbols, head movements, and other gestures do not all mean the same thing in every culture. Therefore, in order to become truly fluent in English, you also need to read the body language of English-speaking cultures. Here are a few common gestures and their meanings.

Image of two segway riders giving each other high fives, which is a celebratory gesture according to ALCC American Language in New York, NY

The “OK” Symbol

This hand symbol is made by connecting the tips of the thumb and the index finger, while holding the other fingers out straight. This gesture means “okay”, or everything is alright.

Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down

This gesture is made by pointing the thumb up or down, with the fingers curled into a fist. Pointing the thumb up is a sign of happiness, while pointing the thumb down means you don’t like something.

High Five

This is a celebratory gesture in which two people slap their open palms together. One may initiate the gesture by saying “give me five.”

Crossing the Fingers

Crossing the index and middle finger indicates hopefulness or wishfulness for a particular outcome. It can also mean good luck. You might even wish someone “good luck” while showing them your crossed fingers.

Personal Space

Maintaining enough personal space is an important aspect of U.S. body language. Most English speakers are very mindful of giving others an appropriate amount of personal space while waiting in line, sharing an elevator, or in business and social situations. The amount of personal space expected varies depending on how much room there is to spare. If you are unsure about how close to stand next to someone, take a cue from the behavior of those around you.

Learning body language that is common among native English speakers will help you avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications. This will also ensure nothing you intend to communicate gets lost in translation as you gain fluency in English.

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