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I just heard that in Britain, extending the index and middle fingers at the same time (the way an American would gesture for the number 2) is an rude or obscene gesture, equivalent to the American gesture with only the middle finger raised. Is this true? Are Americans who think they're asking for a table for two in restaurants unknowingly "flipping the bird" ?

I do remember learning years ago that ithe French signal "2" by extending the thumb and index finger -- a gesture that looks to an American as if it should be accompanied by the words, "Bang. You're dead." (That is, mimicking a handgun.)
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Hi,
In my ESL teacher-training, I was advised to avoid hand and especially finger gestures as much as possible, since so many countries do these with so many different meanings. I've always followed that advice.

Clive
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Hi

In the UK, it depends which way the hand is facing when the sign is made. With the palm facing forward we have a 'V for victory' sign as used by Churchill.

With the back of the hand facing forward we do indeed have a very rude gesture - sometimes referred to as the 'V' sign.

I'm not sure if it is the same as the American middle finger gesture - I have known people in the UK to use the middle finger gesture with a different meaning to the 'V' sign.
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 Clive's reply was promoted to an answer.
If the 2 fingers are apart (even slightly) and yr palm is facing towards you it is very offensive.

It's meaning, and i'll go with caution here begins with F for the first word and Off is the second word. Hope i don't offend anyone. 'flipping the bird' is pretty much the same in UK and US
Its only rude in the UK and some other Englsih speaking countries, if the palm is facing inwards. If it is facing out wards then it is considered a peace or victory sign like many other countries around the world.
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With regard to the British two fingers hand gesture. It has the connotation of an American middle finger.... but not as harsh. The origin came from English / French wars. When an Englishman was captured by the French, they would cut off the index and middle finger of the sword hand to disable the soldier, then send him home. When the British were victorious in a fight, they would display their sword hand index and middle fingers raised and in front of them for the French to see. It was initially a victory symbol with a soft "see... I still have mine" connotation.

Since WWI, the symbol was incorporated with raising the your right hand with two fingers approximately vertically and slapping the right bicep with the left palm to stop the right arm's vertical motion. If the gesture is done casually, such as in football sports... it still means "we won". This can be done in a friendly manor if accompanied with a smile. If it is done quickly it becomes a fiddle finger connotation. The harder the slap, the more harsh the facial expression, the more insulting it is meant to be.

It is kinda like "Cheers" Cheers can mean hello, how are you doing, acknowledgement, ..... or if said abruptly, it can mean goodbye, or just plain Bugger-Off.

I'm an American but have lived and worked in Britain for a British company. You have just scratched the surface. A great book, although out of print is "Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide, Revised Edition " written by Jane Walmsley. If you have been there or are going, I recommend it as a great read.

gcr