Gracious Greetings Between Cultures
When greeting someone, an American's first instinct is to stick out his or her hand, look directly at the other person, and smile. In some situations, this habit can mean making three mistakes at once. And the moment of greeting is when crucial first impressions are made. Methods and styles of greeting vary greatly around the world, and you need to know which practices apply in different circumstances.
A handshake is not the universally approved greeting. Also, “Look 'em right in the eye” is not always the best advice.
Live and Learn
Same-sex hand holding, seen by some as a signal of a homosexual relationship, is a common gesture of friendship in many countries, particularly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
- When greeting Asians for the first time, do not initiate the handshake. You may be forcing a physical contact that the other person finds uncomfortable. Many Asians, particularly Japanese, have learned to accept the handshake when dealing with Westerners. Because the bow is the customary greeting in Japan, a slight bow of the head when responding to a proffered handshake is appropriate. Westerners generally are not expected to be familiar with the complex Japanese bowing protocols.
- Most Latinos are more accustomed to physical contact. Even people who know each other only slightly may embrace when greeting.
- Middle Easterners, particularly Muslims, avoid body contact with the opposite sex, but persons of the same sex commonly hug when greeting each other. When shaking hands, men should be careful not to pull their hand away too quickly. Orthodox Jews also avoid all physical contact with those of the opposite sex who are not family members.
- People from France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal greet friends by kissing on both cheeks.
- The smile is the near-universal gesture of friendliness, and in America its meaning is usually clear. The person smiling is happy, amused, and/or sending out a friendly signal. In other cultures the smile may be sending other signals. In some Latin cultures, for example, the smile may be used to say “Excuse me” or “Please.”
- If a person from another culture does not return your greeting smile, it doesn't indicate hostility or bad manners. In some Asian cultures, smiling is a gesture to be reserved for informal occasions, and smiling while being formally introduced would be considered disrespectful.
- In many cultures, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect, but such behavior can lead to misunderstandings. For example, some Korean shopkeepers have been accused of disrespecting their non-Korean customers because the shopkeepers avoided making eye contact. The same sort of misunderstanding has occurred between American teachers and Asian students who do not look at the teacher while he or she is speaking.