Greetings From Around The World

The way people from different countries around the world greet each other tells us a lot about their culture

Imagine travelling to a country you have never visited before. Upon landing, you meet your taxi driver and the first thing he does is stick his tongue out at you, press his hands together and place them in front of his chest.

In this scenario you most will most likely be in Tibet and, no, you have not offended anyone. Sticking your tongue out is not sign of rudeness here, instead it is the way people greet each other in order to show respect.

While the handshake may be the most common greeting around Europe and in most Western countries, it is not the only one. Across the world, people greet each other differently, in ways linked to their culture and traditions.

Monk in Tibet. Photo credits: changhg / Flickr

Learning how to greet the locals, according to their cultural protocol, is a way to get the most out of your trip. For example, in most Arab countries people greet each other saying As-Salaam ‘Alaykum (peace be upon you), to which respondents reply Wa ‘Alaykum Salaam (upon you be peace). This is a very formal greeting linked to the religious background of the Arabic world.

In other countries, such as Japan, greetings change depending on how well people know each other. Angus Miyaji, CEO of Japan World Link Ltd, says that most of us outside East Asia would think the way Japanese greet each other is peculiar.

“In business relationships,” he says, “if you meet someone for the first time you are expected to bow and exchange business cards (examining the card you received and making a comment about it) before sitting down to talk. Friends don’t exchange business cards, but they keep more physical distance when talking than Westerners. Handshakes aren’t as common as in Eastern culture but they are welcomed when offered.”

Angus also says that bows vary in angle and duration depending on the person you are greeting. “What makes this culture different from the Western one is formality,” he adds.

“Greetings vary according to culture and tradition”

In India, locals press their palms together in front of their heart and say namaste (or namaskar), which literally means ‘I bow to you’. This greeting represents that within our heart there is a divine spark located in the ‘chakra‘.

Canadian writer and digital storyteller, Mariellen Ward, runs her blog and is one of the world’s leading travel bloggers about India. The country has about 23 official languages and multiple dialects, religions and cultures, but, surprisingly, greetings are similar across the nation. Mariellen says: “Though India is a very diverse nation of more than 1.2 billion people, at least 80% of the population is Hindu. Namaste is a Sanskrit word, associated with Hindu culture, and therefore part of the ancient, traditional culture of India.”

Namaste, as a greeting, has been picked up by yoga practitioners the world over, and you hear this word in many yoga classes. In the western world of yoga, the meaning has become perhaps more spiritual than it is, generally, in India nowadays. In a western yoga class, namaste tends to mean ‘The divine in me bows to the divine in you’,” she adds.

Mariellen Ward in India

In the Philippines, residents take each other’s hands gently and press them on their forehead to show respect. Kissing on the cheek or hugging are reserved to family and close friends, while handshakes are for new acquaintances.

In Oman and other Arab countries, men rub their noses when they see each other. Some women also do it, but since this is mostly done in private among family members, it is difficult for visitors to witness it. This unique way of greeting other people shows friendship and deep respect, as it is linked with pride and dignity.

Greetings can differ also within the same continent, as they differ radically from country to country and from culture to culture. Nicholas Wright, marketing manager at Ker & Downey Africa, says the way people greet each other depends on their background: “Greetings are firmly rooted in our cultures. They are something we’re taught by our parents when we are toddlers. Parents don’t want their children to seem rude, so this is one of the first things we’re taught to do correctly.”

“Greetings can differ also within the same continent”

Strong roots in culture, such as family traditions, play a role in the way Africans greet each other and this, according to Nicholas, can also be linked to the geography of the continent. “External factors such as television or pop culture may influence the way we greet each other, but in third world countries, such as Kenya and Botswana, the influence of mainstream media is felt less powerfully than in first world countries.”

Being based in Africa, the organisation he works for is familiar with the meaning behind each particular greeting. “In Botswana it’s very important to say hello. While a handshake is customary and not necessarily unique, the form of handshake common in the country is unique. Rather than a straightforward, powerful, Western-style firm handshake, the Botswana handshake is slightly more respectful.”

When they greet someone, Batswana people extend their right arm, placing their left hand on the right elbow. In the meantime, they interlock their right hand with the other person’s, interlacing thumbs. Before returning to the original position, they say ‘Lae Kae‘, which means ‘How are you?’ in Setswana.

Dance is also a popular form of greeting in Africa. Photo credits: khym54 / Flickr

Nicholas continues: “In Kenya, our guests are always enriched by spending time with the Maasai tribes, so it’s always important that we brief them on how to greet the tribe people. The traditional Maasai greeting is one where the first interaction involves asking how the children are. The Maasai tribes place a lot of value on family and so this is one of the consequences of that cultural element. Whereas in Western culture you would be deemed rude to assume that someone has children.”

“Both greetings can be seen as peculiar. The Maasai greeting has a greater chance of actually offending those who don’t understand its roots, while the Botswana handshake may just seem slightly strange,” Nicholas adds.

In Micronesia, people raise their eyebrows to greet others; however, this gesture can also mean ‘yes’, which can lead to confusion if you are not aware of the double meaning.

In Italy and France, people kiss on both cheeks when meeting somebody new or familiar to show friendship.

“The way people greet each other can give you a clue about local culture and history”

Some countries, such as Argentina, are more tactile than others: people give pecks, hugs and kisses all the time. Funnily enough, in China, it is ok to say that you are not doing well when someone asks you, but in the UK, you are expected to say that you are fine even if you are not. To fail to do so is a major social faux pas!

Roberta Sabbatini, who loves to travel and lived in Taiwan, says the common Chinese greeting of ‘ni hao?’, which translates as ‘you well?’ demonstrates a strong universal love towards other people. But, according to her, the most interesting thing about this greeting is that ‘hao’ (well) is an ideogram made up of the words ‘mum, woman’ and ‘child’. These two ideograms put together formed the world ‘hao’ which indicates affection in its deepest meaning.

So, the next time you travel to a new country, pay attention to the way people greet each other: it can teach you a lot and give you a clue about local culture and history. And don’t feel offended if someone sticks their tongue out at you or if locals ask you how your children are even if you are single. Take it as an opportunity: we may learn a lot of languages, but if we travel somewhere we will get to know a lot more about local customs and traditions.

Chiara Fiorillo