Greetings across cultures

Published on August 26th, 2021

Around the world, there are many ways to greet a business counterpart, extending beyond the straightforward handshake. Get your relationship off to the right start by using a culturally appropriate greeting.

Shaking hands may seem like a perfectly normal way to greet a business contact. Not necessarily, though. What happens if the other person doesn’t offer their hand? Or if you’re a woman in a conservative Muslim culture? Or if your counterpart greets you with a bow? Here’s a quick guide to five situations in which a little business etiquette can go a long way.

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Thailand: Wai etiquette

Thais greet one another with a ‘wai’ – a bow, elbows in, hands clasped as if in prayer. The gesture is said to date from the 12th century, to show that you were not clasping a weapon in either hand. 

DO Wai to Thais in a business context. The position of the hands and the depth of the bow should vary according to the other person’s seniority. Fingertips should be below the chin for equals, in front of the nose for seniors and at eye level for those of the highest standing. 

DON’T Wai to shopkeepers (a smile is enough) or anybody who is serving you, to children or other foreigners; the latter could offend your Thai colleagues. Thais do not wai to their friends, either. 

Japan: How to shake hands 

In Japan, a handshake is acceptable, although some Japanese accompany this with a slight bow as a sign of respect. The Japanese handshake is traditionally limp and little or no eye contact is made. 

DO Have your business card ready, with Japanese translation; some executives exchange cards, presenting the card with both hands and a bow, before even shaking hands. 

DON’T Grip someone’s hand too hard, pump it, slap them on the shoulder or grab their arm. There is some tolerance for cultural transgressions but causing your counterpart to lose face could damage the relationship. 

Nigeria: Appreciate friendship 

Nigerians are generally expressive and emotional and their culture places great value on friendship. Any greeting should be gracious and polite. A handshake should be firm and is often prolonged.  

DO Use formal titles until you know someone. Show deference to elders; failing to greet an older person appropriately is seen as rude.  

DON’T Offer a limp grip. Do not pull your hand away (Nigerian handshakes can go on a long time, including while talking). If you are male, do not try to shake a woman’s hand unless she extends hers. 

Dubai: Show respect 

Handshakes are softer in Middle Eastern countries; a bone-crushing grip and fist pumping action are considered rude. Your contact may hold your hand for longer than you feel comfortable with, too; this is purely a sign of respect and welcome. As you shake hands, say ‘As-salaam alaykum’ (‘peace be upon you’); the response is ‘Wa alaykum as-salaam’ (‘peace be upon you, too). 

DO Adapt to the softer style of handshake. If you are female, greeting a Muslim male, it is acceptable to put your hand over your heart and say hello. If you are male, do allow a close Arab friend to embrace you; it is not uncommon for men to hug and kiss one another on the cheeks. Remember, too, that Dubai is a multicultural environment. You may find forms of greeting much less formal when dealing with ex-pat Europeans, for example. It is, however, essential to learn the correct way of addressing senior Emiratis, whether they are sheikhs or government ministers. 

DON’T Attempt to shake the hand of a Muslim woman unless you are female. Do not end the handshake before your counterpart does. Don’t forget to greet everybody in the room, where possible. 

Brazil: Be demonstrative

Brazilians are demonstrative in their greetings. A firm handshake is appropriate on an initial meeting but once a friendship has been established, men will greet male friends with a brief hug and sometimes, even a kiss on the cheek. Women will greet one another with air kisses is they are already acquainted. Women and men will shake hands when meeting for the first time. 

DO Air kiss on the left side first. Brazil comes with its own rules: one kiss in São Paolo; two in Rio. Maintain eye contact when greeting someone as a sign of trust. 

DON’T Make actual contact during an air kiss beyond cheek to cheek. Don’t shrink away from a hug, either; it has no romantic connotations whatsoever. 

WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.


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