Helpline Question of the Month: How can I count with fingers as the Europeans do?
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Many travelers are nagged by the fear that they've looked like an idiot, or have unintentionally offended someone (who was too polite to point it out!) — and that they may repeat the same mistake again. Non-verbal communication, like gestures, can be tricky for an outsider to grasp. And how about counting with one's fingers? Is there a right way to do this in Europe? Travelers Helpline user "aubergine" knew where to ask for a hand.
Check out the pointers aubergine got on our Travelers Helpline...
"In Europe, I understand that counting with your fingers starts with the thumb. How do people show four fingers? The only way I can hold up my thumb, index, middle and ring fingers at the same time is to hold my pinkie down with my other hand."
— aubergine in the USA
Bloomington, IL USA
They would still understand if you hold up four fingers as we normally do here.
Have you seen the movie Inglorious Basterds?
I have never held my fingers in any special position when asking for a table, etc. When you hold up 4 fingers, they can obviously see 4 fingers. Don't stress out on this. No one is ever, ever going to care about this. To be honest I have never even noticed anyone doing this, perhaps with 2 or 3, but never with 4.
Either I was told or I read somewhere that you do have to be careful about holding up fingers when ordering drinks, that if you hold up two fingers to order two beers, you might get three because the European bartender may assume your thumb is extended too. I have been careful about it on trips to Europe. Glad to hear that it's not an issue.
This is an interesting question! Did you try your other hand? I can hold up 4, starting with the thumb (pinkie down) with my right hand just fine. But not with my left, no way. Actually we just learn to ask for what we want in the local language, so no hands involved, but that wouldn't work in a country where we can't do that (anywhere in Eastern Europe).
I'm not sure it's all of Europe but, yes, in Germany your thumb is number one. Holding up one finger in a loud stube might get you two drinks. Usually they know you're American and don't use the same custom, so they know your one finger means one.
THIS website provides a short tutorial on some of the hand gestures to be careful with. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and some gestures are specific to country or region. The one that you'll probably use when ordering drinks is with two fingers, so be sure that the palm of your hand is facing the correct way.
Toledo, Ohio US
Or learn to say "four, please" in several languages...
Ouch! That hurts. I think I just pulled a muscle in my hand attempting that maneuver. (Somehow I've been getting the message "four" across. Probably verbally or in the good old American way. Has never caused confusion, as far as I know.)
Fremont, CA USA You start with the thumb and the thumb is included from one to three. However number 4 uses the 4 fingers except the thumb. For number 5 the thumb reappears again. For number 6 and above you need the other hand, unless you are an extraterrestrial alien with 6 fingers.
Our independent, volunteer Travelers Helpline contributors are sincere, but not infallible! Follow their advice at your own risk. This thread was gently edited for brevity and clarity. Ask your European travel question on the Travelers Helpline.