No matter where you are in the world, no matter where you or the person you are meeting is from, you start every initial interaction with nonverbal greeting behaviour. In that greeting you form an impression of that person, and if you have met them before you form an impression of them for that interaction. Everyone around the world forms first impressions very quickly, no matter what the culture. Most research shows that people form an impression in the first four minutes of the interaction. Of course, in the United States of America, we like to do everything fast, so we form a first impression in the first 90 seconds, and we decide whether or not we like a person in the first 10 seconds.
Why is the four-minute first impression consistent across cultures? Because forming impressions is part of our basic survival instincts. When one of our cavemen ancestors went out hunting and saw someone from an unfamiliar tribe, he had to make a very quick assessment to know whether or not it was safe to approach. If our ancestor was not accurate, guess what? He did not survive, nor did his gene pool. We are actually genetically predisposed to form quick, accurate, gut-level first impressions. This historical perspective explains why we still like people who are like us. We are more comfortable and feel safer with people who move, speak, dress and gesture like us. We like people who seem to come from our tribe.
I guess I am a Pollyanna. I would like our world to be one family, one tribe. I would like us all to be able to say, “You and I are the same tribe.” What will make us a one tribe world is the knowledge that what is different is not always wrong or bad or scary. We can also begin to let others know that we wish to be a part of their tribe. If we do not take the time to meet and greet properly we spend the rest of the interaction with a certain amount of fight or flight tension, because we have not established that person or people as safe. Today you will learn about nonverbal greeting rituals around the world so that we can make it a small world, after all.
When you are interacting on the phone with tech support in India, listening to a presentation from an engineer from Arabia, getting instructions for product distribution from a vendor in Germany or working for a Japanese-owned company, you may be speaking English and so you may think and they may think you are speaking the same language. But you may be exchanging an enormous amount of nonverbal communication that is not in a dictionary. In fact, in one minute of interaction with one person at any time during that interaction you can exchange up to 10,000 nonverbal cues, both body language cues in face-to-face meetings and paralanguage cues (voice, tone, rate, volume etc.) on the phone and in face-to-face meetings. In fact, the face alone can give 7,000 possible facial expressions. There is no way you can process 10,000 cues at the conscious rational level, but everyone is adept at picking up on nonverbal cues at the subconscious, emotional level.
Here is the problem, just like any language, global body language is unique to each country, heritage, region and even corporate culture. So when we greet and form those first impressions, we are doing so based on our own culture’s mores. Let’s clarify at this point what I mean by a first impression. A first impression is your gut-level response to all the nonverbal cues you pick up with the senses and process in the emotional instinctual part of your brain. That’s why you sometimes have a visceral response upon meeting someone. Have you ever met someone you immediately liked? Ever meet someone and immediately think, I don’t like them and don’t trust them. That feeling is a result of your reading the nonverbal cues.
So let’s say you are an American businessman. That means you will typically give a firm three-to-five pump handshake greeting ritual while standing approximately sixteen inches from the person You will greet someone in business this way then step back to a minimum of two and a half feet, with no other touch in that critical first four minutes.
Now, let’s say you get a big client in Mexico. You talk on the phone many times, share stories of your families and exchange some holiday cards. Then you go to Mexico to meet your client for the first time in person and work on the service contract. He greets you with a soft handshake followed by an embrace and pats you on the back and then your new client stands very close, touches your elbow and fingers your suit lapels while talking to you. What thoughts run through your head about your client?
Let’s imagine that you are uncomfortable so you step back, put your hands in your pockets, tap your foot and grimace in anger at this afront. What do you think the client is thinking? Well, putting your hands in your pockets is very rude in Mexico. And showing anger or impatience, especially as you’re developing a relationship, is very rude. So the client is likely to be thinking, “That rude American.” Or if he is generous, “That stupid American who does not know our customs.”
We need to bring our subconscious knowledge of our own culture’s body language up to our conscious control and be aware of it, and we need to have small have insights into other culture’s nonverbal language so these kinds of miscommunications do not occur. And the Greeting, the most important part of any interaction needs the most attention. As Americans we often underestimate the power of greetings impacts our relationships. And in our fast-paced workaholic culture, we can even resent the time it takes to greet socialize before conducting business. My research shows that the majority of American office workers working in the US go straight to his or her desk to check email and or voice mail without greeting anyone in the morning. Stress research shows that in offices with open cubical spaces this creates a higher stress level for the worker for the rest of the day. They have not checked for safety so they have to stay on guard. Now compare that to many other countries where the significance and the ritual of greeting are essential to the culture.
For example in Senegal on the coast of Africa, you are expected to greet every other member of the community before the start of a conversation and even while walking through the village with a handshake or clasped hands, or offering of the elbow and are the petition of their family name to honour the family. The greeting ritual is so important to this culture that if you start a conversation without greeting first you may get the response,” She, He went to learn how to greet .” In Senegal, if you’re angry at someone you refuse to greet them. So if you are visiting and you follow American Values of “not wasting yours or anyone else’s time” and go to someone and ask them a question without a greeting ritual you would actually indicate to them that you are angry with them.
So let’s discuss one the basic nonverbal greeting behaviours. First the handshake. The handshake has become the international business greeting in the last five years. While in many countries it has been the accepted greeting for much longer, it has only reached global acceptance recently. Now, with some exceptions, even in cultures where it was previously not appropriate to touch in initial interactions or appropriate for men to touch women, international business “men” shake hands. Most cultures that choose to business with North American and Europeans have learned to shake hands. Businesses in some countries such as Japan even have classes on handshakes for their employees who are going to do business outside the country.
Why do you think we shake hands? We shake hands to show we hold no weapon. It is thought to have started with the Roman arm clasp. Medieval knights created the shaking part of the handshake because they knew that other knights hid daggers up in their sleeves and that shaking would dislodge any hidden weapons. So basically handshakes are weapons checks: Are you packing any weapons? Let me check. Nope. Okay. Let’s talk.
In the U.S. in the south, men were taught to wait for the women to extend her hand because to extend your hand would be making the assumption she was packing heat and that would be a great insult to a Southern Belle. Now except for women in two states, Kentucky and Tennessee, my research shows that women across the U.S. like all men to extend their hand and give them a handshake. The majority say that when a man does not offer his hand, it makes her feel she is not respected or seen as an equal.
In traditional Islamic culture, it is forbidden for an unrelated man to touch women. So, men should not extend a hand to women in that traditional environment unless they want to see some heat.
The handshake is the quickest, most effective way to establish rapport with another person. Research in the U.S. shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you get with a handshake.
People have asked me over the years what about hugs? Aren’t they a more touchy-feely greeting that is not about battle? Hugs were first used by the ancient Egyptians to check for swords hidden under long robes and are still used in traditional Arab cultures for the same reason.
Let’s talk about some specific handshakes around the world
In North America the handshake ritual is typically taught to us by our dads who say to strike out firmly, lock thumbs, give full palm to palm contact and pump up and down three to five times. Our dads taught us to shake firmly, so people don’t think we are wimps. In fact, my research indicates the only person the majority of us will not do business with is someone who gives us a wimpy handshake. Middle East dads have a very different mindset. They say to their sons, be gentle in your handshake, firmness suggests aggression. Japanese dads say to their sons, be gentle and avoid eye contact with elder s and superiors, it is disrespectful. In Paris, dads say shake hands with a light quick handshake with everyone at the beginning of the workday, when you get back from lunch and as you leave for the day. And while you are at it kiss on both cheeks. Don’t give an uncouth overly firm fast pumping handshake.
If this has started to get confusing let me generalize. The warmer the climate, the longer, warmer and softer that culture’s greeting will be, the closer the space between you and the other person will be and the more frequent the touch. Southern Europe and South America and Egypt dads say during the handshake left hand may touch the other person forearm or elbow. In Canada’s Western and Atlantic Provinces Dads taught to give a firm handshake with direct eye contact. Shake hands with a woman if she offers her hand, some women will just say hello and perhaps nod her head rather than shake hands. In Canada’s Quebec with its strong French culture Dads taught you may have a firm handshake, perhaps an embrace with close friends, women may also hug each other and everyone may do the French light kissing motion and done at arrival and departure. More specific handshake rituals are charted in the appendix of this article. There will be more on the bow, power, space, windows and relaxation, eye contact and the business card greeting ritual next week on the site.
Greetings Around the World
Some people shake hands, some kiss and hug. Others just say hello. These exchanges are common in the U.S., but how do people in other countries greet each other? In most of Europe, a handshake will do.
A warm handshake is a custom here. As men become well acquainted, the handshake will be accompanied by a light touch on the forearm or elbow. Good friends will greet with an abrazo, or embrace. This may also include several hearty pats on the back.
When you meet a good friend in Belgium, you would greet them with a kiss. This would be done by brushing your lips against the other person’s cheek three times in a row…one cheek, the other cheek, and then back again to the first cheek.
The handshake is the usual form of greeting people in Bulgaria.
Canada (Western and Atlantic Provinces):
A firm handshake plus direct eye contact is the standard form of greeting in Canada. Men should shake hands with women if they offer their hand, but many women will just say ‘hello,’ perhaps with a nod of the head, and not shake hands.
Since the French culture is so strong in this province, certain actions associated with Europe may be noted here. A firm handshake is still the common and preferred method of greeting, but it may be done more often (e.g., at both arrivals and departures, and in all social situations). Also, close male friends may embrace lightly when meeting and women may do the same while adding a light kissing motion on the cheek.
Men should note that when a woman enters the room, the polite gesture is to rise and be prepared to shake her hand if she offers it. A seated woman, however, need not rise nor is she obliged to offer her hand when a man enters.
The Western custom of shaking a person’s hand upon an introduction is becoming widespread throughout China. However, often a nod of the head or a slight bow will suffice. If your Chinese host does not smile upon introductions, don’t worry. The Chinese culture is rooted in the attitude of keeping one’s feelings inside rather than displaying emotions openly and publicly.
Commonwealth of Independent States:
A firm handshake with direct eye contact is the common greeting in the republics of the former Soviet Union. However, among close friends, many residents greet good friends with a “Russian Bear hug”, which would be to hug someone heartily and then kiss the person two or three times on alternating cheeks, with sometimes a final kiss directly on the lips. This is behaviour accepted both towards men and women. However, in Uzbekistan, to add a kiss would be inappropriate.
Always shake hands while in a formal or informal atmosphere. This applies to both your arrival and departure.
When meeting someone, a firm, brief handshake is common. Children will offer to shake your hand and are taught to make direct eye contact with their host for the first time. Always shake a woman’ s hand before the hand of the gentlemen in a group situation. Please stand to shake hands with another person if you are seated.
England (United Kingdom):
A firm handshake, accompanied by direct eye contact, is the standard greeting in the United States. Occasionally, among very good friends who have not seen each other for long intervals, women may briefly hug other women, and men may quickly kiss the cheek of a woman. Males rarely hug one another, however. Occasionally, men may shake hands with the left hand either covering the handshake or lightly gripping the forearm.
Men in Egypt tend to be more touch-oriented, thus a handshake may be accompanied by the gentle touching of your elbow with the other hand.
In France, a light, quick handshake is common. You shake hands frequently in France, particularly in situations on your arrival and departure every day. To offer a strong, pumping handshake would be considered uncultured. When you enter a room, be sure to greet each person present. A woman in France will offer her hand first.
In various parts of Germany, if you arrive at a dinner table and you are unable to shake everyone’ s hand due to the arrangement of the seating, the Germany guest will rap his knuckles lightly on the table to signal his greeting to everyone. This same gesture also applies to when the person leaves the table. Also, university students utilize this gesture to greet their professors in a classroom.
Western-style greetings are used here, but be aware that Ghana consists of a multitude of ethnic groups, thus each group has its own unique culture, customs and language.
Hungarians are not overly demonstrative in public. Personal space while conversing is usually at arm’s length. To embrace someone in public in Hungary is uncommon. However, close friends may do so after not seeing one another for a long time. Brushing your cheek against the other person’ s cheek may then follow his gesture.
A Western woman should not initiate a handshake with a man in India. Many Indian women will shake hands with a foreign woman, but not a foreign man.
When meeting someone for the first time in Indonesia, you should offer your hand to be shaken, and slightly nod your head.
When you shake hands with a child, you are showing his or her parents respect.
Warm handshakes are customary in Israel, and good friends will normally shake hands with friendly pats on the shoulders or back. Israelis generally do not embrace or hug each other when meeting unless they are very close friends. People in Israel may stand quite close when talking with each other. It is also common to touch another person on the arm when conversing, as touching is customary among friends.
Italians are very demonstrative. When greeting each other, you may kiss each other ’s cheeks, embrace warmly and offer a long handshake.
The act of presenting business cards is very important in Japan. Remember to hold the business card with both hands, grasping it between the thumb and foreigners. Present it with the printing pointing towards the person to which you are giving the card, and bow slightly. Your Japanese host will accept the card with both hands, bow slightly and then read the card carefully. When you receive the business card from the Japanese host, be sure to examine it carefully and avoid quickly putting it away. Place it on the table in front of you for further reference.
Among senior citizens and the more traditional Jordanians, the “salaam” gesture may be used. Taking the right hand, touching the heart, then the forehead and then gesturing forward is how this is done. The verbal saying is, “salaam alaykum”, or “peace be with you.”
The most common form of greeting is the handshake, however, some local tribes show greeting by gently slapping palms and then gripping each other’s fingers which are cupped.
A handshake is the common greeting, along with a nod of the head. Men may tip their hat when greeting women.
A warm, somewhat soft handshake is the customary greeting among both men and women. Men should let the woman make the first move toward handshaking. After the second or third meeting, Mexican men may begin with or add the abrazo, the embrace along with a few pats on the back. Women friends will embrace lightly and pretend to kiss a cheek.
Greetings are important in Morocco but they vary according to location. In bigger cities, good friends greet each other by brushing or kissing cheeks. Many kisses signal close and sincere ties of friendship. In rural areas, you may see handshakes accompanied by touching the heart with the right hand.
Handshakes in Norway are brief but firm. Avoid putting your arm around someone else, or even patting him or her on the back. If you are introduced to someone, always stand during the introduction.
An older Polish gentleman may kiss the hand of a woman upon introduction, but don’t imitate this gesture. Women greet their close friends by embracing briefly and slightly kissing each other on the cheeks.
Men rise when they are introduced to a woman.
The abrazo (embrace) is common among male friends, while women do the same, as well as make the motion of kissing on each cheek. Men and women always shake each other’ s hand upon meeting.
If a veiled woman accompanies a Saudi man, he will most probably not introduce her. Many Saudi men accompany their greetings with an embrace and cheek kissing. The “salaam” greeting is also popular among the elderly in Saudi Arabia.
Upon meeting someone in Sweden, offer a firm handshake and retain good eye contact.
Switzerland hosts a combination of French, Italian and German nationalities, thus, the cultural mores and gestures of each of these countries influence Swiss society. However, you should offer a firm handshake to whomever you are introduced to, including children.
Arab customs prevail in the North of the country, where handshakes are warm and gentle. Good friends of the same gender may embrace one another. However, men will only shake a woman’ s hand if she offers her hand first. Actually, a man should not touch a woman in public.
The traditional greeting in Thailand is the “wait” wherein the hands are placed together in a prayer-like position and the headed is slightly bowed. It is similar to the “namaste” in India. The “wait” symbolizes “hello”, “thank you”, “good-bye” and sometimes “I’m sorry.” The higher you hold your hands while performing the “wait”, the more respect you are conveying. Never raise your fingertips higher than your face.
Cultural Shock! A Guide to Customs & Etiquette. People write this series from the country that the guide is about, and it gives a unique look at customs, manners, mores, traditions and other pitfalls that await foreign visitors.
Do’s & Taboos Around the World: A Guide to International Behavior. By Roger Axtell.
European Customs & Manners: How to Make Friends and Do Business in Europe. By Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti.
Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. By Terri Morrison, Wayne A. Conaway, and George A. Borden, PhD Globalization, by definition, requires you to interact with people in other countries, and the success of those interactions depends upon you and the quality of your information. Each chapter focuses on a single country and is broken down into four areas: County Background, Business Practices, Protocol, and Cultural Orientation.
Traveler’s Guide to Asian Customs & Manners. By Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti.
Traveler’s Guide to Latin American Customs & Manners. By Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti.
Traveler s Guide to Middle Eastern and North African Customs & Manners. By Elizabe h Devine and Nancy Braganti.
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