In the United States, as in most places around the globe, the handshake is a universal greeting, representing the emotional connection between two people with a physical clasping of hands. But in many places, things can get much more complicated. People of many countries, especially those in Europe, like to kiss upon greeting, and most of them have very strict rules about how many times to kiss someone’s cheek and on which cheek to start. Even a handshake is not so simple in some places; in the Central African Republic, for example, friends enact a complicated ritual greeting that involves slapping right hands, grabbing each other’s middle fingers using one’s thumbs and middle fingers, and snapping them.
Globetrotters are wise to keep abreast of greeting differences in order not to appear rude on arrival. Sure, a simple handshake will do in most places, but embracing indigenous customs will always get you some appreciation from locals. Besides, you wouldn’t want your ignorance of greeting customs in, say, Tuvalu, to catch you off guard if someone there presses his face to your cheek and sniffs deeply, as Tuvaluans are wont to do.
Shake Hands and Say Hello
The ancient Greeks shook hands much as we do now, as a gesture of friendliness, hospitality, and trust. In medieval Europe, kings and knights would extend their hands to one another to show that they were not carrying a weapon and bore the other party no harm. The gesture was also one of equality, different from bowing and kissing hands, which shows deference by one party and dominance by the other. Shaking hands, however, requires both participants to be on the same level and to show each other the same degree of respect. It also lowers the physical barrier that normally separates and protects one from the world by touching another’s hand. The other person does the same, forming a bond of mutual security.
Shaking hands can also be a way of sizing up someone you’re meeting for the first time. Everyone who’s ever gone to a job interview or business meeting knows the value of the “firm handshake,” which shows that you are confident and in command, as opposed to the “wet noodle,” which indicates indecisiveness and lack of ability. I once got myself into some major trouble at a job interview by shaking too firmly—how was I supposed to know the interviewer had terrible arthritis in her hands?
Fist Bumps and Beyond
At least some form of the handshake seems to exist everywhere around the globe, especially in Europe and North America. It’s both universal and individual, since all of these places also like to put their special stamp on the gesture.
For example, people in the Philippines give and receive limp handshakes. In Malaysia, the “salam” gesture involves clasping the other person’s hands, bringing them back to one’s breast, and asking, “Where are you going?” Beninese young men snap fingers while shaking, while those in Botswana graze palms and fingers while asking, “How did you wake?” Michelle Obama would feel right at home in Grenada, where the handshake is more of a fist bump, and the South African interlocking-pinkies-clasping-fists-and-back-to-pinkies-again ritual is probably the origin for many street handshakes in the United States. In Singapore, too, greeters slide their palms together back toward their own chests, ending with hands on hearts, to show affection.
Kiss Once, Twice, Three Times
In other countries, a handshake just doesn’t cut it, and greeters are expected to kiss each other in a universal sign of deep affection.
Records going back as far as 2000 BC show that people brought their faces together to show spiritual union. People of the Zuler Valley of central Europe used to pass chewed tobacco from mouth to mouth as a sign of love, and many Native American cultures believed that exhaled breath was a part of the soul that could be shared with another by kissing him or her. Kissing stimulates oxytocin, a hormone responsible for calming the mind and body and creating a chemical bond between two people, making it not only a symbol of affection, but a facilitator of it, too.
Kissing rituals predominate in Europe, where they can get very complicated. Parisians kiss four times from cheek to cheek, always with the left cheek first. If you’re in Brittany, kiss three times; in Côte d’Azur, kiss five or six; and in other parts of France, keep it to two. Two kisses is the rule in Spain, Austria, and Scandinavia, as well (but remember to start on the right cheek in Spain).
In the Netherlands, kiss three times, beginning and ending on the same check, and throw in a few more for the elderly and close family members. Age is also a factor for the Belgians, who kiss once for people their own age, and three time for people ten years older.
Outside of Europe, men in Maldova kiss women’s hands while saying, “I kiss your hand” (in case you missed that). And in Oman, men like to kiss each other on the nose in greeting.
Bowing to Custom
Of course, shaking and kissing aren’t the only ways to say “hi” around the world. Most Asian countries have some variation of a bow and/or nod as a greeting. And Arab or Muslim countries similarly use the “salaam” gesture to acknowledge others (hands folded in prayer and bow). And hugging close friends and family is a standard greeting in many countries.
There’s just no way to remember all the different ways people show their hospitality and respect in other countries, so when in doubt, remember that a firm but gentle handshake (usually with the right hand), a smile, and an open mind will do. Or simply wait to follow the other person’s lead, and don’t be surprised if there’s some nose-kissing or cheek-smelling involved.