Is there an International Gesture for Help?

Is there an International Gesture for Help?

one circle with an open hand with thumb across palm, a second circle with fingers closed over the thumb; text: International Gesture for Help

Yes, there is an international gesture for help! But don’t jump up and call the police as soon as you see it. They may just want you to check in on them. But if it is someone you don’t know giving you that signal, then you need to get some immediate help.

The person in need performs this discreet gesture. Their hand should be out of sight of the person they are in fear of. It may be used in-person, during a video, or on an online call. It alerts others that the person feels threatened and need help. Often the person they fear is watching them or is nearby. But that alleged abuser or potential attacker may not see a covert silent gesture.

The 3-Step International Gesture for Help

Hold up a single hand palm facing outward with all fingers straight up. Cross the thumb into the palm. Close the four fingers over the thumb into a closed fist. This gesture of trapping the thumb by the other fingers symbolically indicates a trapped human. Make this gesture as one continual movement.

It was intentionally designed as a series of hand movements performed with one hand. That helps make it more obvious and visible that it is a call for help.

Is this American Sign Language?

one hand in a fist with thumb up on top of the other hand held horizontally with the text help to indicate the ASL sign for help

No, this international gesture for help is not the same as the ASL sign for help. This gesture was designed specifically to not be confused with any existing ASL sign. The ASL sign for help requires 2 hands in motion which is more obvious and possibly raise suspicion.

However, that international gesture for help might be an existing sign in one of the other 150+ sign languages across the world. Sign language is an actual language in itself. One country’s signs are not the same as another country’s.

During Peace Corps training, we learn the basics of the region’s spoken language(s). But we should learn the basics of our host country’s sign language and common physical gestures too. Imagine how much more inclusive and effective we could be if we also learned to communicate with the Deaf or non-verbal HCNs who signs. And maybe that simple effort by us could lead more HCNs to learn their own country’s sign language too.

How Did This International Gesture for Help Start?

It started as a tool to combat the rise in domestic violence cases around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic required people to shelter in place to mitigate the spread. Unfortunately, that left vulnerable people trapped with their abusive domestic partners. As the fear and frustration of the pandemic intensified, so did the abuse.

Domestic abusers monitor their partner’s internet use, emails, phone calls, and more. There needed to be a way to ask for help without leaving a digital trace. The person can now ask for help with one hand without the abuser catching on.

When videos of this international gesture for help hit the internet, social media lit up. Those videos made its way around the world. But there are still people who don’t know it.

What to Do If You See That International Gesture for Help?

If you can, reach out to the person safely. Make sure they are alone. Be supportive. Acknowledge their experience. Let them tell you what they need. Don’t assume. Don’t lecture. Just listen.

Offer support services and other resources, as needed. Ask them what they want you to do. If they don’t want immediate action, then decide together on a plan of action. Should you create a scheduled routine so that you have a reason to check on them? What should you do if they signal to you again?

But if it is an immediate danger situation or a stranger who signals that gesture, then take immediate action and contact the authorities for help.

Other Ways to Ask for Help

three shot glasses of alcohol

Ordering an “angel shot” or “owl shot” is another code for help. This drink is a signal that they are uncomfortable or feel unsafe. Bartenders and staff must act when they get this order.

If you order it “neat,” you need the staff or security to walk you to your car. They need to intervene if your companion volunteers to walk you to your car. If you order an angel shot “with ice,” the staff will call for a ride for you with a reputable resource. But if you order the drink “with lime,” the staff should immediately call the police. They should also take a picture or capture details of anyone with you for evidence if needed.

If the bartender “accidentally” spills your drink and offers to make a new one, it is possible that they suspect that something was put into the drink when you were not looking. If their body language is one of caution and watching, follow their cue.

PCVs and RPCVs Take Note

As Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), we are in a unique position to live and work alongside HCNs. We need to recognize this symbol should they covertly need to ask for help. We can share this gesture with HCNs that we are concerned about. They can also use the gesture to ask for help from each other too.

RPCVs sometimes work or volunteer with vulnerable individuals or groups. Recognizing this symbol for help could be valuable in knowing who to check in on. But be careful about promoting the gesture too much since it will no longer be effective if the abusers and attackers learns it too.

Unfortunately, PCVs and RPCVs may also be the ones in a sticky situation. We could need to get help covertly too.

Before going out with people you don’t know or getting into unfamiliar situations, create a secret code word for people you trust. Turn on that location tracking application so they know where you are. If you say or text that code word, they know to immediately get you help. Just make sure to let them know when you are home safe and sound. And turn off location tracking when you don’t need to be actively tracked.

Let’s keep an eye out for each other. Let’s make sure everyone is safe during service and long after that too.


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