The International Nuances of Handshaking

PSOW Staff - Tuesday, November 12, 2019
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In the business world, perhaps the most powerful and time-honored introductory gesture is the handshake. When we shake hands with someone else, it symbolizes the start of a new relationship built on mutual respect. The custom has many stories of its origin, but many believe the history of the handshake dates back to 5th century BC Greece as a symbol of peace, a gesture to show that neither person was carrying a weapon.

Since that time, what we now call the western handshake—in which two people grasp one of each other’s hands and shake them in a brief up-and-down, pumping movement—has become an internationally accepted greeting throughout the business world—but with some notable variances in many countries.

Because there are subtle—and not-so-subtle differences in handshakes, it’s important to know what’s acceptable and not acceptable in foreign countries as well as knowing other traditional greetings in places you may be visiting or doing business. Knowing the nuances sends a powerful message of respect and demonstrates that you truly value the culture and people with whom you are visiting. Not being sensitive to these unique first impression gestures can often undermine business and personal relations.

The Anatomy of a Handshake

No matter what country you are in, try to avoid looking anxious while waiting for the handshake cue. While most international encounters begin with a western handshake, followed by the country’s traditional greeting, it may just end after the western greeting. If you are conducting business outside of the United States, make sure to shake hands and greet everyone in the room. Failure to do so is considered a rejection of anyone you might have omitted, and it will be noticed by all attendees. When abroad, it’s customary to shake hands upon arrival and departure.

When meeting associates in the U.S., a firm handshake is preferred but when traveling abroad it’s a different story. Here are a few ways you might be greeted by others when doing business in other countries (and some things to avoid):

CHINA - While the western handshake is accepted, it is typically performed with a lighter grip and less of a pumping motion. Chinese also lower their eyes slightly as a sign of respect when meeting someone. When shaking hands, refrain from staring into someone’s eyes as it can be perceived as a sign of disrespect.

JAPAN - Both handshaking and bowing are accepted forms of greeting in international business circles so, take your lead from the person you are meeting. If shaking hands, do so lightly. If you are greeted with a bow, respond by bowing in kind.

SOUTH KOREA – Men greet each other with a slight bow and handshake. Support your right forearm with your left hand to show respect. Maintain eye contact with those of the same level or authority. Women typically nod and rarely shake hands.

RUSSIA - Russians usually use a firm (sometimes very firm) handshake when meeting a guest. If you’ve met the person before, don’t be surprised if the greeting includes a hug. Russian men customarily kiss their guest’s cheeks (men and women alike) while women reserve such intimacies for other Russians and simply shake hands with foreigners.

FRANCE - Shake hands with one brisk stroke upon arrival and departure and make sure to shake hands with everyone.

LATIN AMERICA - Latin Americans use a light, lingering handshake (about twice as long as an American handshake) and pulling away too soon is interpreted as rejection. A man may offer his hand to a woman, and he may “kiss” the top of a woman’s hand.

EUROPEANS - While the European handshake follows the western style, eastern and western Europeans re-shake hands whenever they are apart for a period of time. For example, it is considered polite to shake hands when you leave for lunch and when you return.

ARAB COUNTRIES - Male friends may embrace and kiss each other on both cheeks following a light and lingering handshake. They also stand very close to one another when talking. If you are a non-Arab woman traveling to an Arab country, let the man offer his hand first because some men do not shake hands with women. Many Arab businesswomen who often travel to western countries shake hands with men and women. But always let her offer her hand first.

No matter what country you’re in, if you forget these handshakes or greeting tips, you can always follow the lead of your host.

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