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Don’t leave me hanging! The Art of [not] Shaking Hands.

It’s inevitable. At some point, you’re going to blunder an international greeting.

Be it going in for the handshake and being met with air, bowing a little too low and too long, or not realizing that fist is meant to be bumped.

If you travel abroad, a mucked-up introduction is in your future.

As long as no national faux pas have been made resulting in imminent battle, best to laugh it off and try to do it better the next time.

Methods of greetings have long been spelled out in guide books and across do’s and don’t lists. But how and why those greetings came to be is lesser known but just as fascinating.

Here are four country’s individual greetings and how they came to be:

  • USA
    • When meeting someone for the first time a handshake is appropriate. If you are meeting with a group of people, walking around and shaking hands of all levels of people in no specific order is just fine.
    • Why? Firm, robust handshakes and looking directly into the eyes of a stranger are common in America where there is small power distance or recognized hierarchy. This stems from the US’ highly individualistic history in which people relocated to America for freedom and opportunity – usually relying on the help of strangers. Therefore, an equal greeting to each person is commonplace.
  • China
    • A nod or bow is common in China as is a handshake. Take the cue from your Chinese associate and wait for them to nod and/or extend a hand first. Be sensitive to titles and try to use their official title in greetings such as “Good to meet you President Zhao.” If a visit to a factory or site welcomes you in applause, it’s appropriate to join in on the clapping.
    • Why? China has one of the longest continuous history of any country in the world – over 3,500 years – and with it’s fair share of conflict. Chinese culture is very complex with stability, respect for hierarchy, and collectivism being main tenants. The bow, and it’s numerous subtleties, has a rich history. A stranger bowing (dipping your head and eyes is a non-threatening position) shows that they come in peace, tremendously important in areas where strangers can be an impending danger. The depth and length of the bow show hierarchical respect. A lot of knowledge and information is passed on through a bow with incredible subtlety. Yet, Chinese today are more than willing to initiate handshakes with foreigners.
  • United Arab Emirates
    • A handshake is the most common form of business greeting. If meeting in groups it’s appropriate to shake the most senior persons hand first. If you are meeting with persons from the Gulf (usually indicated by his or her dress) it’s best to wait to see if they extend their hand or bring it to their heart. If the latter, it’s respectful to reciprocate this gesture. A nod and a smile is also welcome. You may see some Emirati men touch noses in greeting. This is reserved for very close relationships only.
    • Why? Religion plays a large role in the greeting culture across the UAE and Arab Gulf States. Islam prohibits non-essential touching or physical contact with someone of the opposite gender, except for immediate family, as a sign of modesty, humility, and chastity. While this goes against many social norms of the West – and can seen uncomfortably – it’s actually a form of respect for the receptor by indicating that no one has the right to be touched without consent. Muslims don’t distinguish this between Muslim and non-Muslim people; it’s the same for both. And, this is also the same for Muslim women as it is for men. Essentially, a Muslim women may shake another woman’s hand (Muslim or not), but not a male’s (Muslim or not.) As shaking a hand is a personal, religious decision, best to let that local person take the lead.
  • Brazil
    • An excited handshake is common during a first greeting. It’s polite to shake hands with everyone in the group both on arrival and departure from a meeting. Once you know each other, adding an embrace, such as a pat on the back, is common. Depending on where you do business in Brazil with time a double kiss may be added.
    • Why? Brazil is a large group oriented culture where an in-group includes extended family and friends. Time spent getting to know someone is fundamental. In addition, Brazilians tend to have high uncertainty avoidance which translates into a need for rules and legal system to structure life, but not always the need to obey the rules individually.  With a bureaucratic structure around them, it’s thought that Brazilians take moments of their day to blow of steam and show emotions in response to not being able to control the wider system. Hence the big greetings!

In the end, nonverbal gestures and greetings vary widely across countries. Investigating why these greetings have stood the test of time provides a greater and richer understanding of the culture.

Plus, you’ll have any easier time remembering the do’s and don’ts when you travel meaning you’ll be less likely to awkwardly botch that French double air kiss.

 

P.S. I rely on two books when planning for international trips 1) Cultures and Organizations Software of the Mind 2) Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. This website is also very handy for country comparisons.

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