Understanding and Using Spanish Gestures

When Spanish speakers communicate, they use their mouths, sure, but also their shoulders, arms, hands and eyes—and often in ways that are quite different from what you might be used to in English.

As you practice with native speakers or watch Spanish videos you’ll eventually start to catch on to the meanings of some of these.

To give you a jumpstart on really speaking Spanish with your entire body, here is a cheat sheet to 18 gestures you might use when talking in Spanish.


1. Está lleno de gente

Meaning: It’s crowded/full of people

Gesture: Here

One of the most fundamental cultural conflicts that I had with my first Spanish girlfriend involved this gesture.

I liked to dine out in relatively calm environments, but if we were out looking for a place to eat and she saw a restaurant that was full of people, she would grin and insist that we stop there.

There was a gesture that would accompany this reaction. She would hold a hand palm up and open and close her fingers, keeping them straight—perhaps one should visualize the fingers as people being crowded into butting their heads together. 

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To her, and to most other Spaniards, a crowded restaurant isn’t just a sign that the food must be good. It’s a necessity in and of itself for ambiance, for the sense of a good night out in an exciting place. To a much greater extent than in other cultures I’ve lived in, Spanish culture views crowdedness as a good thing.

Thus, when you go out to have dinner, tapas or drinks with Spanish speakers, you’ll probably also find yourself dragged into the most crowded places. It’s perhaps not the ideal situation for a struggling newbie Spanish speaker, but with this gesture you can, at the very least, wordlessly comment on how crowded the place is.

Another phrase that can be paired with the gesture is hay mucha gente  (there are a lot of people).

2. Un / una caradura

Meaning: A shameless person

Gesture: Here

If someone behaves in a way that’s just shameless, they’re known in Spanish as a un/una caradura—literally a “hard face” (male/female). The gesture that accompanies this is tapping your open palm against your cheek; you can imagine that you’re showing just how hard someone’s face is.

As described in the video clip above, you might break out this gesture when someone is shirking their responsibility to invite you to a drink (assuming you paid the previous round).

Other situations where it could come up include when others are taking more than their fair share of something or are making a spectacle of themselves.

Other expressions that you can use with this gesture are ¡Es sinvergüenza!  (he/she is shameless) and ¡Qué cara más dura tiene!  (literally: what a hard face he/she has!).

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3. Estoy harto / Estoy hasta aquí

Meaning: To be fed up/up to here

Gesture: Here

The gesture for showing exasperation relates to the phrase estar hasta aquí (to be up to here). You show just where aquí is on your body by tapping the side of your open hand, palm down, against your forehead.

As they make the gesture, many Spanish speakers also puff out their cheeks and/or exhale, as if to gesture that they’re bursting at the seams with this exasperation.

If you’re the person who’s fed up, you conjugate the verb estar for the first person singular. Others can also be fed up too, although you’ll of course still gesture at your own head as you say these!

You can also use the various conjugations of estar with the word harto (fed up) to express the same sentiment:

Keeping gender rule in mind, a woman would say the second one. An alternate version of the gesture is to tap the side of your head with your thumb and index finger, then flip your hand outwards, opening it.

4. ¡Dios mío!

Meaning: My god!

Gesture: Here

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When you see this gesture in conversation, you’re usually about to be treated to quite a story.

If something is unbelievable, insane or absolutely amazing, this is the gesture that you’ll need. Hold your hand limp at shoulder height and waggle it back and forth. You’ll also usually shake your head in disbelief.

As suggested in the video, you might say either dios mío  (my god) or madre mía  (literally, “my mother,” a reference to the Virgin Mary).

In actual fact, the majority of Spanish speakers will accompany this gesture with vocabulary that’s less religion-based and more defecation- or sexuality-based, but disclosing the specific language is beyond this classy blog. However, the gesture itself isn’t considered vulgar.

This gesture can also simply mean mucho (a lot). Use it to show how impressed you are by a quantity.

5. Counting the years for a kid’s birthday

Gesture: Here

Have you wondered what you can do to tease or terrorize Spanish children on their birthdays?

Here’s your answer: Grab the kid by the ear and tug down, once for each year of life that they’ve completed. The last tug should be the strongest.

As you tug, count off the years: uno, dos, tres, cuatro… ¡y cinco!

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Make a show of really tugging on the kid’s ear for the last one, to symbolize the increasingly tragic, painful, one-way process of aging. Chances are, the kid will giggle, because he hasn’t yet caught on to the horrors involved.

6. Estoy a dos velas

Meaning: I’m broke

Gesture: Here and here

When you’re running short on funds you can use the expression estoy a dos velas, which literally translates to “I’m at two candles.”

The gesture that goes with it is to make the peace sign with your two fingers pointing at your eyeballs, and then to wave them up and down. If it helps you remember this, I suppose you could think of this as the smoke from your last two candles burning in front of your eyes.

There’s also an alternate version of the gesture.

Have you ever noticed how wax running down the side of a candle looks like snot running down one’s face? I hadn’t either, but Spanish people have, and thus estar a dos velas can also be gestured with two fingers indicating snot running out of your nose.

Isn’t that charming?

7. ¿Lo pillas?

Meaning: Do you get it?

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Gesture: Here

This gesture is particular to Spain. When someone wants to check your understanding, she might hold her finger and thumb out as if grasping a small object and then twisting it about slightly.

The verb pillar  literally means to catch or nab something, so that may help you remember the gesture.

The gesture might be used if someone has just made a joke that you didn’t laugh at, and they want to inquire if you understood. As a non-native Spanish speaker you’re likely going to see this one often, especially when a Spanish person sees that perhaps you’re out of your element or missed something they said.

8. Así así

Meaning: Not so great, so-so

Gesture: Here

You may already use this gesture as an English speaker.

When someone asks ¿Cómo estás?  and things are not-so-great, you can respond así así and tilt your raised hand side to side, palm down.

It’s also quite common when speaking Spanish to further emphasize the rough seas you’re riding by tilting your head from side to side as you make the gesture.

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9. Te voy a dar

Meaning: You’re gonna get it

Gesture: Here

Do you need to indicate to a Spanish child that some non-specific punishment is imminent?

Say te voy a dar (you’re gonna get it), then hold your hand palm up and chop sideways at the air. Are you gesturing a spanking? A karate chop through the kid’s skull? Or just halving the kid’s allowance? It’s hard to say; like the expression, the gesture is intentionally vague.

Note the tongue click at 1:04 in the video that’s used to emphasize the severity of this strike. Spaniards use this click all the time for emphasis, and in quite a variety of situations. It’s the cutest thing ever, even when used to imply violence.

10. Muy delgado / Muy delgada

Meaning: Very skinny

Gesture: Here

If someone has lost a lot of weight or become skinny, Spanish has a gesture to emphasize the fact.

Hold up your fist, and extend only your pinky finger, meñique . The phrase for a man is muy delgado and for a woman muy delgada.

As you might already know from the long days (months? years?) spent studying ser vs. estar (Spanish’s two verbs for “to be”), you’ll use the former when describing a skinny person and the latter when talking about weight loss.

In both cases, you can use this same gesture, but the meaning will be different:

11. No tiene ni dos dedos de frente

Meaning: To be dumb as a post

Gesture: Here

If someone is dumb—or acting it—you can indicate as much by tapping your first two fingers, closed together, to your forehead. As usual for negative gestures, we do this one to ourselves even when we’re talking about someone else.

The corresponding expression is no tener ni dos dedos de frente  (to be dumb as a post, or literally “to not even have two fingers in front”). Conjugating the irregular verb, you might say:

No tiene ni dos dedos de frente. — He’s dumb as a post.

Spanish also has a positive version of this expression (which doesn’t have a gesture):

Tiene más de dos dedos de frente. — He’s a smart cookie. (Literally, “he’s got more than two fingers in front.”)

12. Está loco / está loca

Meaning: He’s/she’s crazy

Gesture: Here

When someone is being a bit nutty in English we twirl our index finger at the side of our skulls, perhaps rolling our eyes.

Spanish speakers do likewise, but they may also just tap their index fingers against their temples—like English speakers do to indicate that someone is smart or has a good idea.

It might seem like the two meanings for the same gesture could cause a bit of Anglo-Hispanic cross-cultural confusion, but the accompanying exasperated expressions, sighs and eye-rolling make it pretty clear that a Spanish speaker thinks someone is losing his or her marbles.

For the phrase, we conjugate our temporary-state-of-being verb estar to está, then add loco for a man and loca for a woman.

13. Ya te lo dije

Meaning: I told you so

Gesture: Here

If you want to emphasize your previous clairvoyance, brush or flick the backside of your index finger out from under your chin at the other person.

It looks a bit rude and childish—and it is.

You can accompany it with the phrase ya te lo dije (literally, “I already told you it”) or you can just make a taunting naaaaa  sound.

14. Se me ha ido la olla

Meaning: I forgot

Gesture: Here

If you’ve forgotten something, you can gesture that something is just flying out of your skull. With your hand open and fingers together, touch your fingers to your forehead and then flick them off into the air, like the thoughts are just escaping.

One phrase that you might use with this in Spain is se me ha ido la olla, which can mean “I forgot.” It can also mean “I went crazy/did something stupid,” and literally it means “the pot got away from me.”

In Latin America you’re more likely to hear the phrase with the preterite: Se me fue la olla.

I think that this phrase is useful to memorize along with this gesture, for their mutual ability to evoke the imagery of things getting away from us. However, you’re just as likely to hear the simple se me olvidó  (I forgot) with this gesture.

Notice how the magical, lovely se me olvidó uses an unspecified third person subject to liberate one from the responsibility of forgetting? This could be literally translated as, “It forgot itself on me.” Who wouldn’t wish to see forgetting as a misfortune that visits us, not as something that we do to ourselves?

15. Vamos a comer

Meaning: Let’s eat

Gesture: Here

If you’re hungry and want to suggest going for a bite, curl the fingers and thumb of one hand together in a point and gesture bringing it to your mouth.

The accompanying phrase is vamos a comer (let’s eat).

16. Hacen buena pareja

Meaning: To be a good match

Gesture: Here

To say that two people or things seem to go well together, stick out the index finger of each hand and bump them together a couple of times.

The accompanying phrase is hacer buena pareja, which means to be a good match (literally, they make good couple). 

Often you’re talking about others, so you’ll use the third person plural, as in hacen buena pareja. (they are a good match).

17. Mira

Meaning: Look

Gesture: Here

The gesture for telling someone to look at something more closely is to pull down one lower eyelid with the index finger of one hand.

It’s a little bit nicer and more subtle than just saying mira (look).

This gesture is extremely common and can have a couple more meanings. If given with a knowing/suspicious look, it might mean “I know what you’re up to.” And it can also mean that you’re suggesting to keep an eye one someone or to pay closer attention.

18. Perezoso / perezosa

Meaning: Lazy

Gesture: Here

This gesture looks a little like the Anglo gesture for large breasts, but falls a bit lower, like you’re cradling in both hands a person’s large lumps of fat, or as the video suggests, enormous testicles.

To do it, hold your hands open in front of you and move them up and down, like you’ve got some big, oppressive, clumsy load.

The corresponding adjective is perezoso for a man or perezosa for a woman.


Ready to speak Spanish with your hands?

The next time you’re in a conversation with a Spanish speaker, try leaving out a few of the words above and using the gestured equivalent instead. Can you be understood just the same? Use the FluentU program to see the gestures in use by native Spanish speakers through bite-sized videos with learning features.

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Just as with learning oral Spanish, gestured Spanish will be truly acquired when you actually start employing it.

Eventually you’ll find that you can hold quite a bit of conversation in Spanish without saying a word.

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