First impressions are always important, but navigating cultural differences can often make first meetings a bit awkward—just ask anyone who’s gone in for a handshake only to receive a kiss instead. We’ve rounded up some general customs for greeting people around the world, but if all else fails don’t forget that the best way to connect with someone new is with an open mind and a smile.
Like in the United States, people from many countries use a form of handshaking when saying hello. However, the actual firmness of the handshake has varying importance. While a firm grip is preferred (and often considered a sign of confidence) in the United States, Norway, and other European countries, many Asian and Middle Eastern nations prefer a less firm grip. In fact, a too-tight handshake can be considered rude in some instances.
In most countries, it’s customary for people to shake with their right hand. One theory looks to medieval times when people would join hands as a way to show they weren’t holding weapons. On a different note, some countries, particularly in the Middle East, consider it impolite to greet with the left hand since it used for hygiene; while the right hand is used for greeting, eating and gift-giving.
Kiss and tell
Kisses on the cheek (or at least, cheek taps with a kiss noise) are common in cultures from Spain to Senegal to Serbia. It’s the number of kisses that makes a difference. In France, faire la bise (or literally, “to do the kisses”) can give a clue to a person’s native region, with different areas giving two, three or four cheek kisses.
Interactions between gender is another nuance to observe. For example, in Italy it’s not uncommon for kisses to be exchanged between two women, two men or a man and a woman; however in Iran, it’s common for two same-sex people to exchange kisses, but friends of opposite genders do not touch while saying hello.
Seen as an old-fashioned and formal romantic gesture between men and women in the United States, hand-kissing is not uncommon in some Central and Eastern European countries, including Russia and Poland among others. In Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, it’s a respectful way to greet elders.
In New Zealand, a traditional greeting of the Māori entails people sharing “the breath of life” with one another, and thus sharing the duties and obligations of their homeland. During a hongi, two people press their noses and foreheads together to literally exchange breath.
Similarly, what some people think of as “eskimo kissing” is loosely derived from a kunik, an Inuit greeting where people lightly nuzzle noses. This is not a romantic gesture, but an intimate greeting between family members (mostly mothers and children) or partners.
Bows of greeting are common in many East Asian countries. While it’s not always this simple, a general rule of thumb is the deeper and longer the bow, the greater the respect. In Japan, bows bend at the hip and are done with a straight back—men keep their hands at their sides and women have their hands clasped.
In Thailand, the wai is a slight bow where both men and women place their hands in front of their faces. Dating back to ancient times, the wai was originally a way for two parties to show they did not have any weapons.
In India, the bow is accompanied by charaṇa-sparśa, or the touching of the foot, when one greets a family elder or a figure of great respect. Another greeting customary in India (and Nepal as well), is namaste, a slight bow and prayer-posed greeting that originated from a Sanskrit term that translates to “I salute you.”
What types of greetings have you encountered in your travels? Tell us in the comments or via email!