Body Language: Hand Gestures in the Korean Culture

Body Language: Hand Gestures in the Korean Culture


Navigate your new Korean life with as few social blunders as possible with this rundown of unique Korean non-verbal cues.


Finger heart

With how far-reaching this gesture is, you've probably seen people aside from Koreans who do this pose on social media. The adorable heart sign is so easy to do—all you need to do is pinch your forefinger and thumb together and skew them sideways to form a tiny heart—so it is not surprising that many people have caught on to the trend. It is said to have originated from the well-loved Korean pop culture, and although it's a modern gesture, the love symbol will most likely be used in the years to come.


Photo courtesy of Instagram


Beckoning with the palm down

Are you used to calling someone over with your palms up? Do the reverse of that beckoning gesture and that's how Koreans wave someone over to where they're at. They move their fingers together in the inverted come-hither motion or they allow their full hands to do the signal. Remember that they do not do this with their palms up, or else their friends will think they are waving to an animal! In other words, it can be seen as a bit condescending. 


Passing and receiving things with two hands

During your stay in the country, you may have noticed that Koreans receive and hand out things with both of their hands. This custom, which signifies respect, has long been practiced that they do it instinctively. In business circles, Koreans may also be seen shaking the hands of colleagues and clients with both hands. While among groups of friends the gesture is not strictly observed, young people are encouraged to give or accept objects from older people with cupped hands. The gesture is one testament to how Koreans value their elderly.


Two thumbs up for a yes, two arms crossed for a no

Aside from getting and handing items, Koreans also make use of their hands and arms when expressing approval and dismay. Whereas you might be accustomed to one thumb up for good, or a slight shake of the head for no, Koreans raise two thumbs or cross their arms to convey support or refusal. The former also means that a job is done well and that the person is proud of the accomplishment, while the latter may also indicate a mere no or a prohibition. 


Photo courtesy of Instagram


Peace pose

Seen in photos for far longer than the finger heart sign, the peace sign, shaped like the letter V, is ubiquitous in Koreans' photos that their hands do the pose instantly when called to face the camera. It's the Korean counterpart to the American habit of saying "cheese" when taking pictures; plus, it also denotes victory, making it a classic, go-to pose, and a mood-booster for the perfect portrait.

The peace sign is also linked to a cultural habit called aegyo, when one is acting cute-sy through mimicking a baby-tone voice and doing facial expressions and hand gestures. Do note that Koreans use this hand gesture with either hand facing front or back for the same meaning.


Photo courtesy of Instagram


Money sign

Koreans talk about money and their respective income as part of regular conversations. Although it may be surprising to the country's newcomers, money conversations are common, to such a degree that there is a money gesture ready to be used when the topic slips into daily chats. It is similar to the OK sign with the three fingers raised, but it is presented horizontally against the chest. The circular shape, formed by the index finger and the thumb, resembles that of a coin, hence the handy gesture that comes convenient when Koreans have to steer a discussion about finances.


Pinky swear

When Koreans say yes to plans and give each other the pinky swear, expect the commitment to already be halfway fulfilled. The promise, locked in by intertwining the pinky fingers of two persons, is taken seriously in friendship circles. Should Koreans need more assurance that the other will make good with their words, they seal the deal by pressing their thumbs together during the pinky promise, representing the 도장 (an official stamp). Then they finish it off by making a copy (복사) by running their palms across each other (like "gimme some skin" in 90's Cali lingo).  The gesture shows the Korean value of trust and keeping one's word.


Photo courtesy of Instagram


Smacking of knees

You know a Korean has their Eureka moment when they hit their knees. It's akin to the flash of lightbulb feeling after mulling over a difficulty or a problem for quite some time. Often done while seated, the gesture produces a slapping sound that indicates a Korean's enthusiasm and excitement about a fresh idea.


Gestures of love

Koreans love the feeling of giving love that they have other gestures for admiration and affection. Aside from the newly-minted photo pose that is the finger heart, Koreans touch the top of their heads with their fingertips, forming a giant heart with their arms. It's a bigger, grander gesture to show love, appropriate for the proudly affectionate.

In addition to this, Koreans like to spread love too. Instead of connoting violence, finger guns represent otherwise and symbolize shooting or showering love to the targeted individual. It's a hand gesture that is also frequently seen in their television shows and films.


Invitation to drink booze

Soju is a common Korean pastime, so naturally, they have devised a simple gesture to suggest to friends and colleagues, "Let's go for a drink!" Hold an invisible shot glass using your thumb, index, and middle finger, then shoot it making a clicking noise with your tongue. Another hand gesture is, the shaka sign or "hang loose" sign. Similarly to the invisible shot glass, with your thumb towards your mouth, shoot it, making a clicking noise. These gestures are a fun way to round up your mates when you want a night of drunkenness . 



Rock, paper, and scissors

The classic childhood game is played in South Korea too, albeit with a few hand gestures that you may not be aware of. Even though the rock sign is also the clenched fist and the paper is the widely opened hand, the scissor gesture isn't the V- or peace-sign that we often use. Rather, it is represented by the index finger and the thumb, similar to a gun- or checkmark-like shape. If you see a bunch of Koreans huddled together and throwing these signs rapidly, then you know what game they are playing. The best part? You can now join them too!


Hand on nape

Usually, when two people are talking in an informal manner, and one suddenly places his or her hand on their nape, it is a comedic comeback, meaning "I beg to differ." For example, a friend says “I’m the most handsome person in the world, aren’t I?” and one silently responds with a hand on the nape. This hand gesture expresses laughter at your ridiculousness but still a polite way of disagreeing. 


Photo courtesy of PNG Guru


Touching the tongue then nose with finger

If you happen to see someone touching the tip of their tongue then their nose repetitively, it means that their leg has fallen asleep and they are trying to wake it up or their leg has cramps and they are trying to relieve it. 


As with other countries, South Korea, aside from its international pop culture phenomenon and fascinating culture, has distinctive gestures and body language that you should be paying attention to. If anything, these little things are what make up their ways and lifestyle. Now that you're armed with this list and knowledge, your Korean stay will be smooth-sailing and you're on your way to communicating better!

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