The new manager was meeting all of the staff. As she walked towards me, I began to stretch out my hand for a handshake. Once my hand reached halfway and I saw her hand still by her side, I began to panic. Is a handshake appropriate? I quickly lowered it back down as she got nearer. Is a hug better? Or a kiss? One kiss or two? In my panic, I began to lower my head in a bow. One second later, I felt my forehead hit her stretched-out hand.
Have you ever felt anxious when greeting foreign nationals? In this article, we discuss the dos and don'ts of greetings in the international workplace.
Gestures of greeting
Let's start by taking a look at some common gestures of greeting from around the world.
Reach out with your right hand to shake the other person's right hand. Smile and keep eye contact.
Move your head down towards your chest and back up again, smiling and keeping your eyes on the other person.
To invite a hug, reach to the sides with both hands, palms facing inwards. Close them around the other person.
It's basically a one-handed hug. Reach out a hand and gently slap the other person on the back of the shoulder.
Lower your body at the waist, keeping your hands behind your back or to the sides (but not hanging out in front).
Move closer to the other person and bring your cheek towards his or her cheek, kissing lightly. Repeat with other cheek.
For many cultures, kissing on the lips is generally seen as a romantic gesture. While a kiss on the cheek may also appear to be a private matter for many cultures, it is a common greeting among family, friends and new acquaintances across many parts of the world. It's particularly common across Latin America and Europe, where it may be typical to greet your friends with one, two, three or even four kisses, changing cheek each time. It's often less common to see cheek kissing between two men than it is to see it happen between a woman and a man or two women. With some cultures, the cheek kiss involves lips-to-cheek contact, while for others it's normal to see cheek-to-cheek contact with a kiss to the air.
If you're unsure whether a cheek kiss is appropriate, then it's probably best to leave this one for now. However, if you're working in a place where it's common or the person you're greeting moves in first for a cheek kiss, then certainly follow their lead. Someone might get offended if you reject their greeting by turning away or offering a handshake instead.
Bowing is a common greeting in some Asian countries. In Japan, the size of the bow depends on the social status of the two people.
In the West, bowing happens on only a few special occasions. When meeting the Queen (of the UK), for example, men are expected to bow and women are supposed to curtsey (by crossing their legs and kneeling slightly). The same two gestures are used by theatre actors at the end of a performance.
Unless you're based in a country or company where bowing is common, it's best to avoid this greeting.
Hugging is a common greeting for many cultures across the world, but is generally used as a sign of affection between friends and families. So, unless you really know the person, this greeting is best left for friends outside the office.
Essentially, the back pat is a slightly less intimate form of a hug for those who may not feel comfortable with the full hug. It can be seen as a masculine greeting, especially when the pat is heavy, and is seen more with man-to-man greetings. It's still more affectionate than a handshake, but may be suitable for two friends meeting outside the office.
Many cultures across the world see nodding used as a gesture for saying 'yes' or accepting. Some also use it as a quick form of greeting. Less formal than a handshake, it may be useful in group situations if there are too many hands to shake or if you see someone you know in the group, but it's not possible to get close enough for a proper greeting. You may also find it useful when you're passing an acquaintance but don't have time to stop.
This leaves us with the humble handshake, common across many cultures and the safest greeting for most international workplaces. It's thought to have begun around the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece as a gesture of peace that showed neither person was carrying a weapon.1
So, what's the secret to the perfect handshake?
Handshake customs differ across cultures in terms of length, number of shakes and the amount of force used. As always, follow the customs of the country or company you're working in. In the West, it's typical to use the right hand to shake up and down briefly - long enough for you to learn each other's names or to say 'hello'. A reasonably firm handshake can show confidence but too strong a handshake can be seen as aggressive, so don't rip their arm off!
Smiling and eye contact
Whichever greeting you go for, remember that a smile goes a long way! Take the effort to smile to ensure you get off to a good start with new acquaintances and continue to build relationships with people you know.
In general, you'll want to use plenty of eye contact in an international environment. In the West, eye contact is seen as essential to friendly contact (but look away from time to time - staring can be seen as rude). However, be aware that in some countries it's considered more polite to look below the eyes when greeting.
As always, consider local culture first.