Is your friend a child or a pig?

One day my oldest son was telling Suegra about a classmate, and in describing the classmate, my son mentioned the boy’s height.

“He’s about this tall,” he said in Spanish, holding his hand out flat, palm down.

Suegra snorted.

“Is your friend a child or a pig?”

And with that blunt question, we learned something new – Holding one’s hand out, palm down to suggest height as we do in the United States, is used only to describe the height of animals in El Salvador.

Hand gesture to suggest height of human or animal in the United States, this hand gesture is used only for height of animals in El Salvador.

In El Salvador, if you want to describe the height of a human being, you must hold your hand with your fingers pointed up, palm facing out, (the way we hold our hands to say “stop” in the United States.)

Hold your hand out like this to suggest height of a human when in El Salvador.

Which hand gesture do you use to suggest height? Is the hand gesture different for humans and animals?

Related link: My Hands Speak Spanish, too


  1. Tracy,

    This is pretty funny, and apparently, the same rule is sort of true in Colombia. I didn’t learn about it until I was in middle school, though, so I think it’s one of those dying traditions and you would only call someone on it if you want to be really obnoxious. I still use the animal version of the gesture to indicate people’s heights – most of them act like animals anyway.

    I assume as kids, even in Latin America, become more removed from where their food comes from, the rule will disappear altogether and the nuance will change to how you indicate the height of Costco 500 lb. pack of meat vs. the height of a 500 lb. person.


    • “…you would only call someone on it if you want to be really obnoxious. I still use the animal version of the gesture to indicate people’s heights – most of them act like animals anyway.” <— ROFL!

      Since you mentioned that you think this gesture will die out as people become more removed from where their food comes from, you've made me curious about the origin of the gestures.

      If you know anything, please share!

  2. So I just looked at the pictures more closely and found that the Colombian gesture for humans is different – you hold your hand out flat, sort of like when you go to shake someone’s hand, but making almost a 90 degree angle between your hand and your wrist. See? it’s too complicated!


  3. I finally broke my husband of this (on accident!) because everytime he’d do it, I’d ask ok, so do you mean from the top of your hand or the bottom or what? And we’d get into a big ol’ discussion on what is proper and when and why and finally he just stopped doing it. Oops. But his hands were held sideways, like Ruben said, as if to shake hands or reaching to grab something.(Before you fret too much, I’ve seen him do it recently with older Mexican men, he just doesn’t do it with me.)

  4. Ahhh this is what I love about living in a multicultural house-you learn something new everyday! This was very interesting. I’m glad Ruben commented too. I definitely gotta to check with my Colombianos to see what they do.

  5. Hey Tracy, when I read the title this morning I was a little confused, but I assumed it had something to do with Suegra, lol… Too funny! We do the palm down for height and didn’t even know about the other variation. Good to know :-)

    • Yeah, I puzzled over the title myself before hitting publish but oh well. LOL. Funny that you assumed it had something to do with Suegra, (funnier still that you were right!)

  6. So with the human-height sign…. is the height from the tip of the fingers, or heel of the hand, or where? ‘Cause that’s quite a few inches difference in the length of a human hand!
    The palm down way is self explanatory…

  7. Never heard of this! Very interesting, although I agree, a little confusing…but now that I think of it, I think my husband holds his hand up right, bending just the tips of his fingers to indicate how tall a person is.

  8. Tracy, I remember learning about this when I moved to the U.S. and had a lot of Colombian friends, except that they would do it with their hand extended out as the others have mentioned. I’d never ever known about this until I got here and someone told me I needed to make a distinction between animals and people when referring to their height… except that, when does one actually talk about the height of an animal?

    Either way, I never understood the purpose, so I never adopted this costumbre…

  9. The same is true in Colombia. I get chastised about that all the time because I really don’t pay that much attention to it. The other day, I said my son was “this tall” and got a nasty look. It’s silly but non-verbal cues are as much a part of communication and culture as words.

  10. OMG – I needed to laugh this morning. Thank you. Talk about cultural differences. Wow. I’ve only ever used the “piggy-version” of “this high,” but then again, people here in the U.S. might think I was directing traffic if I used the palm-out version. This reminds me of something I heard when I was six or eight while staying at my godmother’s one summer. She’s from Colombia and shared that you had to be careful about offering “galletas” in South American, because the other party might think you were offering to beat them up. Do you know if that’s true? My family’s from Mexico, so I’ve only known “galletas” to mean “cookies/crackers.”

    Fun post. Gracias!

    • Thanks for your comment. LOL – love the “galletas” story! That is such an awesome slang word. I have never heard it used that way – it just means “cookies” to me… I would have thought “galleta” could have been used for the female anatomy but not about beating someone up. jajaja… Love it.

      Any of our amigos Colombianos care to tell us more? I know we’ve got some here!

  11. OMG! The first time I did the palm down gesture to indicate someone’s height, when talking to Hubby, he asked me the exact same thing, “Is your friend a pig or a human?” Apparently in Mexico, the palm down thing is for animals only, too. But they don’t use the stop sign to indicate height. You’re supposed to just use your index finger, pointing upwards, and the tip of the fingertip indicates how tall the person is. And your folded fingers MUST be facing you, not the person you’re talking to. If it’s too complicated, I can send you a picture. I’ve always wanted to be a hand model. :)

    • How interesting! So in Mexico to suggest height of human, it’s kind of like giving the middle finger gesture, but with your index/pointer finger? … Please, feel free to live out your hand model dreams. I’m sure yours are nicer than my stubby Kindergartner looking hands. LOL. Send me the pic and I’ll upload here and link it in the post!

      (And if any of you want to send me other hand gestures for height, please do!) Latinaish {at} gmail {dot} com

  12. Most of my in-laws (from Mexico) use their index finger, knuckle facing down to signify small. Index finger pointing up with the wrist just below someone’s head signifies tall. As with the Salvadorean hand palm facing down is also used when regarding animals. Mannerism vary greatly throughout the world; very interesting.

  13. when visiting my relatives in Mexico I was taught the height hand gesture distinctions too. Here’s the way I learned it:

    inanimate object – palm outstretched facing down

    animal – palm outstretched facing perpendicular to the ground. this gesture alludes to how people say horses, cows, etc. are so many hands tall. I think farmers in the U.S. used to (maybe still do) measure the height of some animals by the width of their palm

    humans – touch the back of your index finger with your thumb and point your index finger up with your other three fingers pointing towards you. this gesture is meant to symbolize growth – like a seedling sprouting through the earth as it grows. I think Mexicans, especially those in rural areas, also use this gesture to indicate the height of crops.

  14. Does someoe knows if this applies for other races different than Hispanics? My husband is white and he told me he never heard that before and we always have a back and forth conversation over this topic. I remember my mother thought me this when I was a little kid so it’s been always a normal thing for me to do.

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