The customs and rituals involved in greeting someone are often different from country to country, and unfamiliar customs can sometimes be confusing. Situations get even more confusing when different greeting gestures are required between male and female, female and female, male and male… Travelers, especially when in unfamiliar cultures, almost need a manual just to make sure not to offend someone when meeting and greeting.
In the USA, it is normal for men to shake hands when they meet, but it is quite unusual for men to kiss when they greet each other. Greetings are casual – a handshake, a smile and a ‘hello’ will do just fine.
The British often simply say ‘hello’ when they meet friends. They usually shake hands only when they meet for the first time. Social kissing, often just a peck on the cheek, is common in an informal situation between men and women and also between women who know each other very well.
French nationals, including children, shake hands with their friends and often kiss them on both cheeks, both upon meeting and leaving.
In Japan, the common greeting for men and women as well is to bow when they greet someone, as opposed to giving a casual handshake or a hug.
In Arab countries, close male friends or colleagues hug and kiss both cheeks. They shake hands with the right hand only, for longer but less firmly than in the West. Contact between the opposite genders in public is considered obscene. Do not offer to shake hands with the opposite sex.
Hungarians like to use the friendly greeting form of kissing each other on the cheeks. The most common way is to kiss from your right to your left. When men meet for the first time, the casual norm is a firm handshake.
In Belgium, people kiss on one cheek when they meet, regardless of the gender or how well they know each other.
Chinese tend to be more conservative. When meeting someone for the first time, they would usually nod their heads and smile, or shake hands if in a formal situation.
In Russia, the typical greeting is a very firm handshake. Assume you’re trying to crush each others knuckles, all the while maintaining direct eye contact. When men shake hands with women, the handshake is less industrial. It is considered gallant to kiss women three times while alternating cheeks, and even to kiss hands.
In Albania, men shake hands when greeting one another. Depending on how close the men are with each other, a kiss on each cheek may be common as well. When a man meets a female relative, a kiss on each cheek, or two per cheek, is common. With friends or colleagues, normally a light handshake will do. Women may shake hands or kiss each other on both cheeks.
In Armenia, by tradition, and especially in the rural areas, a woman needs to wait for the man to offer his hand for the handshake. Between good friends and family members, a kiss on the cheek and a light hug are also common.
A full list would be extensive, as each country differs just a little bit in the way people greet each other. To add to the hapless traveler’s confusion are the different hand gestures around the world. Before visiting a foreign country, it is recommended to check on the various meaning of hand gestures, as a visitor may inadvertently find himself in a very unpleasant situation. Here is why:
Waving your full arm side to side in many countries is recognized as saying ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. However, in East Asian countries it is considered overly demonstrative. Additionally in some European countries, as well as Japan and Latin America, it can be confused for a ‘no’ or general negative response. In India, it means ‘come here’.
Counting with fingers starting with index finger toward the pinkie can make people confused in Germany and Austria as forefinger held up means two instead of one, especially when ordering a round of drinks. In Japan, the thumb alone means five. When Hungarians count on their hand, they start with the thumb being number one.
Curling the index finger, or four fingers toward you as a gesture of inviting somebody to come closer, can be mistaken for ‘good bye’ in southern Europe. In Philippines and East Asia, curling the index finger is used only to beckon dogs.
Pointing directly to someone or something using index finger in Europe is considered impolite. In China, Japan, Latin America and Indonesia it has very rude connotations. In many African countries, the index finger is used for pointing only at inanimate objects.
Gestures can say more than words, and just as we are usually very careful when using foreign languages, we should consider carefully what hand gestures we should display whilst in different cultures. The world is indeed full of diversities, so enjoy your learning.