Koreans use their hands a lot when they speak, but their hand gestures differ significantly from what we know from Western culture. I have no idea why I never thought about writing about this before but in the past few weeks I have experienced all most of these hand gestures first hand (haha, lame pun intended), so I thought I’d give you a rundown of them here. And feel free to use them whenever you visit Korea!

The V-sign

You don’t see a photo in Korea without at least one of the persons pictured spreading their middle and index fingers in a V-sign. In fact, I dare you to hold a camera toward a Korean and see how they respond. You just have to pretend that you’re about to take a picture and they will make the V-sign instantly as some sort of superhuman reflex mechanism. 2 years in Korea have reprogrammed me to be just as quick with the V-sign, and I instantly present the same pose whenever someone holds a camera to my face. What can I say… When in Rome Seoul, right?

The finger heart

This one is relatively new. You simply take your thumb and index finger and cross them at the first joint so that the fingertips form the shape of the heart. This is a preferred photo gesture among younger people these days, but it does not look any more sophisticated than the V-sign. Due to Korea’s strong group pressure mentality, I’m a repeat offender of this one too, but I personally find it a bit tacky.

Come over here!

If we want to beckon someone to come towards us, we usually hold out our hand, palm facing up, and move the fingers toward ourselves. This is considered very rude in Korea, where people instead normally hold out their hand palm facing down, and then wave their fingers inwards. It resembles the Western “shoo, go away” gesture, so it had me confused for the first couple of months.

Ohh, this is awkward

This one is my all-time favorite. You point your two index fingers together while looking cute with your eyes cast down. Works well if someone scolds you over something or asks a favor that you can’t really grant.

The forehead flick

In a country where corporal punishment is still widespread (OMG! I know, right), it’s very common for close friends to inflict mild pain on each other for small trespasses such as arriving late or being the last one to finish a drink. The most common one is flicking someone’s forehead. As a receiver of this cruel and unusual punishment, you are expected to take it graciously and then scream out in much more pain than it really warrants.

The wrist grab

For Korean movie or TV show aficionados, this gesture should be well-known. On TV, Korean men are always shown grabbing women’s wrists and dragging them either away from something or toward themselves. This may sound like borderline gender violence and always looks very dramatic on TV. I used to think this was just to create a special effect in movies, but the wrist grab absolutely exists in real life (had my own wrist grabbed several times over here). But fear not, it’s not as creepy as it sounds. Korean men usually feel very protective toward women they are walking next to, so if you’re about to walk into someone, or they want to lead you in a certain direction, grabbing your wrist is considered much more appropriate even among friends or colleagues as opposed to holding someone’s hand which is reserved strictly for lovers. Also, they grab it firmly but they don’t try to pull your arm off. I admit it took me some getting used to, but understanding the underlying mechanisms help in just accepting this behavior as a part of Korean culture.

The promise

Koreans love to make yaksok, promises using the “pinky swear” gesture, where you lock pinkies and then say the word yaksok sort of as to solidify the promise. It doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager or well into your 30’s, I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve made a pinky swear with Koreans. I’ve recently been subjected to the whole routine of promise-sign-scan-copy – promise (pinkies lock), sign (you pretend writing with your index finger on the other’s palm), scan (you hold out your hand like as if about to give a handshake and then slide your palms by each other), copy (you place you hold your palms vertically on top of each other), which I suggest might serve well as a sobriety test since, as you can see, it involves a series of meticulously choreographed gestures.

Rock, paper, scissors

This game is sooo common in Korea. You cannot go into a restaurant or bar without hearing people yelling kawi bawi bo! (rock, paper, scissors). This practice can effectively settle who gets to finish the beer, pick up the tab, order a new round… The possibilities are endless. Bear in mind that losing at this game may subject you to the punishment of the aforementioned painful forehead flick.

The cheek pinch

This is something Korean guys do to girls constantly (not to me, mind you!). Usually accompanied by the sentence often said in a slight baby voice “Oooh, our little *insert Korean girl’s name here* is sooooo cuuuute”. I personally find this act very patronizing, much more than the wrist grab, and don’t really approve of it. It’s very common, nonetheless.

The double hand wave

Why wave with just one hand when you have two? Enough said!

 

I probably left out a couple of gestures, but these were the ones that jumped to mind based on my own experiences and observations. Feel free to share your own experiences with quirky Korean gestures in the comments!

 

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