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9 uniquely German gestures and noises that need explaining

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9 uniquely German gestures and noises that need explaining
"My boss says he has to work from home today (tugs eyelid down) due to sickness." Photo: Shelley Pascual
11:59 CEST+02:00
Compared to people from countries like Italy or Brazil, Germans aren’t that well known for their gestures. But hand signals and interjections can communicate just as much as (if not more than) words, so you’d be wise to know what the ones on this list mean.

1. Pressing your thumbs for good luck

In many English-speaking cultures, a common way to wish someone good luck is to cross one’s fingers. Germany alternatively has its very own gesture and phrase for this. Saying Ich drücke dir die Daumen (my thumbs are pressed for you) expresses wishes of good luck.

If someone says this, it is often accompanied by wrapping all the fingers around the thumb in a gesture that looks like the speaker is giving a “thumbs up” - only the thumb stays in the fist.

Photo: Shelley Pascual

2. Tapping your forehead or temple with your finger

The closest equivalent English speakers have when it comes to this German gesture is twirling their finger close to their ear or temple to communicate that a person is “crazy.”

In Germany, tapping your temple or forehead with one of your fingers communicates that you think a person is an idiot; be careful how and when you use it as it could be insulting to the person on the receiving end.

If you’re chatting with people you’re close to such as family or friends, this gesture is also used jokingly to show you think what the person is saying is stupid or silly.

3. Waving your hand in front of your face

When a German waves a hand in front of her face, such as at the end of a statement, she does this to emphasize how insane something is.

This English sentence could completely sum up the German gesture: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

For instance, a speaker might make the hand wave move to speak about people who aren’t present, such as after saying, “They’ve only been dating for one month and have already gotten married?”

But the gesture can also be used to address someone present, as illustrated by this example: “You thought you could just go behind my back and date my best friend?!” (Hand wave + scowl)

4. Pulling your lower eyelid down

Whereas in English a person can reveal his sarcasm through his tone of voice, this isn’t as evident in the German language.

This might be why there’s a gesture - pulling your lower eyelid down - to show you're being sarcastic which you would do while you’re talking. It implies what you’re saying is meant to be taken sarcastically.

Example 1: “Oh right, climate change (starts tugging eyelid) isn’t a thing.”

In a slight variation, it can also be used to call bullsh*t on something. 

Example 2: “My colleague is off from work today due to illness.” (tugs eyelid)

5. Booooah!

German language dictionary Duden defines the word boah, alternatively spelled boa, as an “exclamation of amazement.”

Indeed, the interjection is commonly used to express astonishment and can even be accompanied by a widening of the speaker’s eyes and physically pulling away.

A close equivalent could be “wow” in the English language, though this word isn’t like the German expression in that it doesn’t communicate a wide array of emotions ranging from disappointment to respect or even disgust.

If you feel you’ve mastered the expression, feel free to draw out the “o” sound for as long as you see fit to amplify your emotions. For instance, Boah could mean you’re surprised but Boooooooooah might mean you’re utterly and completely blown away.

Could it be that Chancellor Angela Merkel was saying "Boooaaahhh" at the time? Photo: DPA

6. Naaaaaa?

This term of endearment is so versatile, it shows up time and again in articles we’ve written. In this column, for instance, one of our journalists says it’s so ingrained in her, she finds herself saying it to friends who don’t even speak German.

Deemed a slang word by Duden, the one-syllable word Na can be translated into English as “Well?” or “Yeah?” If only it were that simple in reality though.

German speakers might say Naaa? in place of Wie geht’s dir? (How are you?) They might also draw it out much more with people they're close to and say Naaaaaaaaaaa? with a big smile on their face if they haven’t seen the person in a long time.

Yet another example where it can be used, for instance, is when you ask a friend how something went. Rather than constructing full sentences to communicate this, all that’s required to say you want to know all the details is a simple Naa?

READ ALSO: 8 German words that are impossible to translate into English

7. Tja

Yet another colloquial term which is unique to the German culture, tja according to Duden expresses a variety of feelings and emotions, including thoughtfulness, concern, hesitation, embarrassment and resignation.

Often used on its own or at the beginning of sentences, a close translation could be “oh well” in English, but even this phrase doesn’t quite communicate all the instances where tja can be used.

An example where you might say the interjection is if you’ve missed your train: “Nun ist es zu spät. (Now it’s too late) Tja.”


"I accidentally dropped and broke my cell phone. Tja." Photo: DPA

8. Pfui

Duden defines pfui as an interjection which can express displeasure or disgust. So feel free to use it whenever you experience a strong negative feeling, such as when encountering eggy smells or while booing the opposing team at a football match.

Close English equivalents for the term include “yikes” and “yuck” - though none of these really encapsulate the essence of the German noise.

While less common in northern parts of the country, the term is said to be heard more frequently in southern regions.

And if you want to sound like the locals, try spitting out the initial “pf” sound at your conversation partner and drawing out the “uuuuiiiiii” sound.

9. Ach...

To round off this list, here’s a multifaceted term that Germans love tacking on before other words and for which an English equivalent doesn't really exist. Ach so! and Ach was! are just a few common examples.

Duden states that Ach so! is an expression of understanding and translates to “Aha!” or “I see!” Meanwhile Ach was! translates to something along the lines of “Nonsense!”

But there are many other terms which begin with Ach (e.g. Ach ja? Ach nee! Ach bitte!) to express a wide range of emotions, including discontent, desire, regret and amazement.

SEE ALSO: 10 ways of speaking German you’ll only ever pick up on the street

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