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There are several forms of international greetings. Whether two businesspeople use a handshake, kiss and/or bow, for example, will depend on their cultural backgrounds. It is always a good idea to check with someone familiar with the customs of your host country before you travel or host international clients so you understand the acceptable and practiced forms of greeting.

Like other aspects of business etiquette, there are different rules of handshaking to be aware of when dealing with foreign visitors or traveling abroad. There are many differences in handshakes worldwide, including who extends whose hand first, how many hands you shake, and whether you shake hands with women. The firmness and duration of the handshake might also change, depending on the location. The significance of handshakes also varies internationally.

Never make assumptions about people based on their handshakes, regardless if you are the visitor or the host. The variations indicate cultural differences rather than a person's personality, as some Americans may believe. For instance, in Japan, a limp grip is the accepted behavior, not a sign of weakness. A Japanese visitor to the United States may not change his typical shake until he has become accustomed to the American method.

Also be careful about assigning too much significance to a handshake, particularly as a symbol of commitment at the end of business negotiations. In Italy, the handshake is an important gesture of trust; but, in general, doing business on a handshake is dying out in Europe.

To be safe, when shaking hands with someone for the first time, always extend your right hand. Be cautious with the left hand. In parts of Africa, Asia or the Middle East, there are taboos against using the left hand. It is considered "the dirty hand"--the one used for bathroom functions.

In Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden and most of the rest of Eastern Europe, you must shake hands with everyone in the party upon arriving and leaving--do not simply wave hello or good-bye. Start with the highest-ranking or oldest person. The most important person usually extends his hand first. In Asia, be cautious. You do not want to force a handshake on anyone. In Japan, take your cue about whether to shake hands, bow or do both, from your host. In South Korea, you will probably shake hands. In Arab countries, men may find themselves shaking hands several times a day, whenever you go apart and then meet again.

There are no longer established differences between men and women when shaking hands in the United States; but this is not always the case in other countries. In Europe, a man should usually not extend a hand until the woman does so first. Women should make sure they do extend a hand; they will lose credibility if they don't. In some European countries, many of the old formal rules are loosening, especially among younger people. This means you will have to gauge the appropriate action by the specific situation.

In Asia, a man should usually wait for the woman to act before he extends a hand. If she doesn't extend her hand, don't extend yours. Women should be sensitive to this; it's not polite to force it. In China and Korea, however, a woman can extend her hand first. In Japan, you need to judge by the situation. Generally speaking, Arab men and women do not shake hands with each other. A woman should be cautious about extending her hand to an Arab, though many Arabs are now familiar with U.S. customs and will shake hands with women.

Handshakes between men and women also are unusual in India. Hasidic Jewish men worldwide will not shake hands with women because a man is not allowed to touch any woman other than his wife.

Kissing and/or Hugging
Two other forms of international greeting that vary from country to country are the kiss and hug. In the United States, incorporating a kiss on the cheek or hug as a form of greeting usually only happens between good friends, and rarely between two men. Keep in mind that in other countries, these actions are part of a polite and friendly protocol. What a kiss or hug from your international counterpart generally means is you are being officially welcomed. This kiss-and-hug "hello" has no more significance than a handshake.

Visitors from countries with kiss-and-hug greetings may use them reflexively when meeting people in the United States. If a foreign visitor kisses or hugs you in the United States, it's appropriate to accept those gestures in the spirit in which they are offered. In Latin America, you may encounter "the abrazo," a full embrace with pats on the back.

You also may be kissed and hugged in Russia. In the United Arab Emirates, men will kiss other men three to four times on the cheeks. In Saudi Arabia, a male guest may be kissed on both cheeks after shaking hands. In France, you might see people kissing alternate cheeks (actually, rubbing cheeks and kissing the air). Generally, in Europe, kissing occurs only after the relationship has become somewhat more personal. As the foreigner, it is a safe bet not to initiate the practice but let the other person start.
The Bow

Another physical form of greeting is the bow. While most Americans associate "taking a bow" with receiving applause, to bow as part of a greeting is an act of humbling oneself before another, of showing respect. Bowing is just a gracious way to say "hello," to acknowledge a person. There are three etiquette guidelines for bowing:

1. First, always return a bow! Failure to return a bow is rude.
2. The person of lower status bows first.
3. The person lower in status bows lower.

The bow is part of the ritual greeting in Japan. The Chinese may nod or use a slight bow. A slight bow also is used in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. While handshakes are used in most of these locations, adopting the local custom of making a bow shows respect for the individual and the culture.

Men generally bow with their hands at their sides, palms down on their thighs. Women bow with their hands folded in front. There are variations and subtleties to the bow based on the individual culture.

In Thailand, the wai (pronounced "why") combines a bow with a sort of salute. It is done with the palms together, fingers up (not folded or clasped) and a slight bow. The hands are usually at chest level. When performing this gesture, you say, "wai." The younger person does the wai first. In addition to signifying "hello," it can be used to say, "good-bye," "thank you" and "I'm sorry." The higher the hands, the more respect you show, although eye level is the highest anyone goes.

In India, a similar greeting is called the "namaste." It is done with palms together and fingers up and together, usually at the chin level. It is combined with a nod. You say "namaste" (pronounced "nay-mast-tay"), which means, "I bow to you." It is a sign of appreciation. The host usually does it first, and it's polite to return it. Do this also for "good morning," "good afternoon" or "good evening."

The bottom line is to know the traditions and practices of the nation where you are traveling or visitors you are hosting. Don't lose business or a client--or, worse; embarrass yourself or your firm--by being labeled rude or ignorant of acceptable international greetings.

Author's Bio: 

Cynthia Lett is an eminent etiquette and protocol expert with over 27 years teaching the subjects to professionals worldwide. She is the Executive Director of the International Society of Protocol & Etiquette Professionals and Director of The Lett Group. She has earned the distinctions of Certified Etiquette Professional (CEP) and Certified Protocol Professional (CPP). Learn more about business etiquette here: