Cultural differences manifest in many forms; the most obvious ones are language, dress, and food. Hand gestures can be a subtle facet of cultural identity, yet should not be overlooked as insignificant. Here are a few hand signals you might come across or ones you had best avoid while visiting or living in Ecuador.
In the US and many parts of the world, we typically signal for someone to come over to talk to us in one of two ways. The first is to wag/flap your hand, palm up, in a direction towards you. The second is to extend your index finger and curl it towards yourself. The former looks a bit silly to an Ecuadorian and the latter does indeed signify “c’mere” but in a sexual advancement kind of way.
Speaking of which, NEVER use the above single finger gesture with your hand palm down unless you intend to send a very sexually explicit message to the recipient.
The proper way to ask someone to come towards you is to extend out your hand, palm down and wag your fingers towards your palm. This same gesture is also used for hailing a taxi or bus.
Sorry-No Can Do!
Typical Scenario 1: You are at the fish market and you ask a man for shrimp. The man looks up at you and simply shakes his open hand but says nothing. You think, huh, perhaps he didn’t understand me and you ask again (maybe a bit a louder in typical expat fashion). Looking slightly exasperated now, the man shakes his hand a bit more more emphatically and as you continue to stand there perplexed, he adds, “No hay” (pronounced “no EYE”).
Typical Scenario 2: You have been waiting alongside the hot, dusty road for a taxi and now, finally see one approaching. As you hail the taxi with great hope, the driver casually sticks his hand out of the half open window and shakes it at you as he drives past. What!? How rude!, you think to yourself.
The open hand, palm down, shaken from up to down is a widely used gesture that is often overlooked or misunderstood by Ecuador newbies. As in the shrimp case above, the gesture was used to indicate that there were no shrimp available (“no hay”). The same gesture can also mean “no hay como,” which means that something’s not possible [at the moment]. In the case of the taxi driver, the gesture indicated that the taxi was not available for hire.
How Tall is Your Pony?
If you are ever asked how tall someone is, you would indicate their height by holding out the side of your hand, pinkie side facing down. If you indicated your spouse’s head height using your palm facing down, you might illicit laughter as this gesture is used exclusively for measuring the height of animals, typically livestock.
Hook ‘Em Horns
A head’s up to all the Texas Longhorn fans out there who are thinking of coming to Ecuador. Flashing the hand sign of your beloved team indicates to the recipient that their spouse is cheating on them; i.e. they are “cachudo” (wife cheating on him) or “cachuda” (husband cheating on her). A side note here that the hand-horns sign IS widely used in rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a cross-over from North American/European culture.
The A-OK sign is a vulgar sexual reference that is best to avoid. A better option to indicate your satisfaction or well-being is to offer a “thumbs up” sign instead. While in some other parts of the world, this too is a vulgar gesture, “thumbs up” here is commonly used.
Navigating the Wrist Shake
So this last one is not so much a gesture but instead is here for etiquette purposes. Typical scenario: You are introduced to someone who has been hard at work (landscaping, chopping fish, painting, etc.). You go to shake their hand yet instead of offering out their hand in return, they ball up their fist and offer you their wrist. Don’t be shy–just briefly shake their wrist. You have been offered their wrist not as an insult of any kind but simply because they are concerned that their hands are too dirty from work to offer to you.
Hopefully the hand gestures provided here will help, if ever so slightly, with the process of familiarizing yourself with some cultural nuances. The process takes a long time no matter what but fortunately, people here tend to have great compassion and appreciation for those who genuinely attempt to immerse themselves into Ecuadorian culture.