Hand-shaking is a common – and safe – way to say ‘hello’ to people you don’t know throughout the world, although it’s not exactly the most personable way to greet someone if you’ve already met them once before.
However, the greeting methods vary from country to country, so greeting someone in Japan is completely different from greeting someone in France. Who do you hug, how many kisses do you give, or how do you greet the opposite sex? All of these can be confusing, and sometimes terrifying when both of you turn to the same side, brush noses, sometimes lips, bump heads. So here’s a handy list of ways to greet properly around the world – that is, after you’ve greeted them with a ‘hello’ in local lingo.
In Western and Southern Europe (but not the north), most people greet social acquaintances with cheek-kissing – however, you don’t actually kiss the cheeks, you kiss the air as you touch cheeks together (usually right cheek first). It’s usually done between two women or a woman and a man; men more commonly shake hands but this is not the case in the Middle East, where cheek-kissing is usually done between men. Women – or one with higher social status – typically lead.
In France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and the UK, two pecks are the most common form of kiss greetings.
In much of the Middle East, cheek kisses are between men only – usually following handshakes.
In some Western countries, people prefer to hug rather than kiss, to greet someone they know. Hug only when the person you want to hug extends his or her arms – the most common way is to place one arm around their shoulder and the other just under their armpit. People in Northern Europe, like Germany and Sweden prefer hugging over kissing.
In much of the USA and Canada, handshakes are still the norm, but hugging is preferred among closer friends. Between men, there’s the option of the ‘bro-hug’ (or pound hug) where you start with a handshake before drawing the other person in for a one-armed hug.
Across parts of Asia, most greetings don’t involve any touching at all. The most common is the hand gestures, usually with two palms placed together as a sign of respect.
Thais greet each other with a wai, where you press your hands together as if you’re praying, and then slightly bow so that your thumbs slightly touch your chin and your fingertips reach your forehead. In India, the prayer hand gesture is similar – you also tilt your head forward and say ‘namaste’.
Everyone’s familiar with bowing as a form of greeting in East Asia. The bow is the standard greeting in Japan. Bows differ depending on the occasion; among peers, you can just nod your head but if it’s an older person or someone important, you should bow at least 15º from your waist (with a straight back).
In Korea, it’s also acceptable to nod your head among peers, and in a formal setting it’s common to bow before a handshake.
Illustrations by Akanksha Kartik. This article appear in full in our Travel Issue.