Experts say that body language can constitute 50% or more of what we are communicating. This is particularly true for greetings. Do you kiss? Hug? Shake hands? Or avoid any physical contact?
At a recent company outing I was struck by how differently people from different countries and cultures greet, so I decided to do an informal survey. Our company provides translation and interpretation services so it is not surprising that more than one half of our staff members were born and raised outside of the U.S. I asked them for their input.
A member of our American contingent directed me to Brigham Young University’s Web site, which offers a culture lesson for foreign students on how Americans greet each other. It states that American adults almost always shake hands when they meet in any setting. Men shake hands with men. Men can also shake hands with women. The woman should extend her hand first to signal to the man it is acceptable to shake hands. Women may hug a good friend if meeting on the street, but they may also just use a verbal greeting. Men don’t hug each other, even if they are good friends, and should not hug women they don’t know. In a business setting, neither men nor women hug.
Let’s compare these customs to the ways people greet each other in other countries. In Ghana, greeting and taking leave are an integral part of social values and training starts right within the family. Your family’s integrity is questioned if you misconduct yourself in public. Public displays of affection such as hugging or kissing are frowned upon and have an erotic connotation. A handshake is the traditional body contact for making peace with another person, congratulating or sympathizing with them or just saying hello.
In contrast to Ghana, people in France kiss and hug each other quite liberally. The tricky part is to figure out how many kisses will get the job done without appearing insensitive or overly enthusiastic. The French spread their kissing habit well beyond the family circle and in a business setting. Greeting French people is a virtual minefield for non-natives who are typically far more restrained.
To add to the complexity, the number of kisses ranges from one to a mind-blowing five, and varies not only by region, but also within regions, depending on social status and other variables. One Mr. Debunne is trying to tackle this conundrum through his Web site, Combien de Bises? (How Many Kisses?). It provides an interactive map where visitors to the site can cast their vote as to how many kisses are exchanged in their particular part of France. Check it out at http://combiendebises.free.fr.
In Iran, men who are related or know each other well will shake hands while kissing each other three times on their cheeks; this is an upgrade from the two kisses that were customarily exchanged prior to the revolution of 1979. Men who are strangers typically shake hands with the younger of them displaying a slight head nod, thus expressing respect for an elder. Women will not shake hands, look at a man, be acknowledged or looked at by a strange man. If acquainted or related, women will also give each other three consecutive kisses on their cheeks.
Back in Europe, people in Switzerland typically exchange three kisses even in business settings, whereas Germans tend to restrict kissing to family and very close friends. The Dutch start on the right cheek and peck each other three times. In Italy, the number fluctuates without any particular reason and without a set rule as to which cheek is the first, which results in frequent clashes, particularly for those wearing glasses.
Two kisses are typically traded in Austria and in Scandinavia. The same holds for Spain, but with a proviso that the right cheek is always first. In Belgium one kiss is the rule when greeting a person of the same age; if there is an age difference, three kisses can be exchanged as a mark of respect by the younger participant in the greeting ritual.
Etiquette is supremely important in Great Britain. Among the British, a handshake is the most common form of greeting and is customary when you are introduced to someone new. It is only when you meet friends whom you haven’t seen for a long time that you would kiss the cheek of the opposite sex. In Britain one kiss is generally enough.
If Britons are unsure how to greet their French cousins, the French face a similar obstacle when it comes to shaking hands with the Britons. A New York Times article from 1895 called it a regular orgy when a foreign visitor to Liverpool counted no less than 24 handshakes among six people in the time span of 15 minutes. Today, a teacher of etiquette at St. Olaf College tells us that when greeting people in England, have the same handshake for everyone. Having a different handshake for men and women is sexist, he notes, adding that you should not be afraid to move closer to someone to shake hands and then step away to talk.
Asia is an entirely different story. In Japan, the customary greeting is the bow. However, some Japanese may greet you with a handshake, albeit a weak one. If you are greeted with a bow, return with a bow as low as the one you received. How low you bow determines the status of the relationship between you and the other person. When you bow keep your eyes low and your palms flat next to your thighs. The business card should be given after the bow.
In China, personal contact should always be avoided. It is highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public. Bowing or nodding is the common greeting among Chinese; as a foreigner, you may be offered a handshake. Wait for the Chinese to offer their hand first.
When in doubt, use a handshake, but keep in mind that the American style handshake with a firm grip, two quick pumps, eye contact and a smile is not universal. Variations in handshakes are based on cultural differences, not on personality or values. The Japanese give a light handshake. Germans offer a firm shake with one pump, and the French grip is light with a quick pump. In the Middle East, people will continue shaking your hand throughout the greeting.
No matter where you are, it is important to be sensitive to and show appreciation for the local customs. Greeting is the initial contact and sets the tone for all communications that follow.