The do’s and don’ts of greetings around the world

Every culture has a unique way of greeting people

Shaking hands may seem like a perfectly normal way of greeting 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 is greeting you with a bow? Here’s a quick guide to five situations in which a little business etiquette understanding of different greetings around the world can go a long way.


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.


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 be fatal to the relationship.


African countries have their own variations on the traditional handshake. A handshake should be firm and is often prolonged. In Namibia, thumbs are locked in the middle of the handshake. In Liberia, people slap hands and then execute a complex finger snap. In east and southern Africa, holding your right elbow with your left hand during the handshake is a sign of respect.

DO Master the handshake specific to the country you are visiting. In Muslim areas, touch your left hand to your chest as you shake hands, as a sign of additional deference.

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

Middle East

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.

DON’T Attempt to shake the hand of a Muslim woman unless you are female. Do not end the handshake before your counterpart does.

Latin America

Latin Americans and 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 hug and sometimes, even a kiss on the cheek. Air kissing is appropriate in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia for a man greeting a woman (whom he already knows) and a woman greeting another woman. Venezuela and Mexico are more formal; stick to handshakes unless you are greeting a very close friend.

DO Air kiss on the left side first. Learn the special rules for Brazil; one kiss in São Paolo; two in Rio.

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.

Do you have any experiences where a lack of business etiquette has gotten you in trouble? Click here to share your experiences.
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About the Author

Sue Bryant

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