The Art of a Handshake Across Cultures

Business people shaking hands, finishing up a meeting

You probably take handshakes for granted: after all, it’s just something we do to make introductions as a sign of respect and welcome. However, you may not realize how globally recognized a handshake is. Of course, how those handshakes are given and perceived can vary widely across cultures.

Meaning of the Handshake

What does a handshake mean in different cultures? Is there the right way or wrong way to do it? Let’s explore.

Here in the United States, in both personal and business situations, we shake hands firmly and with gusto, stating our name and greeting the recipient. Same goes in Brazil, but with strong eye contact (men kiss women on the cheek). However, try that in Turkey and you’ll be considered rude. And the British like to greet others with a lighter handshake. In Australia, women don’t shake hands with other women, and in Russia, you should never shake hands with the opposite sex; rather, the man should plant a light kiss on the woman’s hand.

Many countries’ handshakes are based on the age of the recipients. In China, greet the oldest person first, with no eye contact, a slight grip and a bow. Same thing in the United Arab Emirates yet with no bow. In Thailand, don’t shake hands at all. Place your palms together at chest level and bow (call “wai”). In Kenya, grasp the person’s right wrist with your left hand and say “Jambo,” then ask about their business or family.

Origin of the Handshake

There are many opinions as to where the handshake got started, but many believe it originated in Medieval times, when armor-covered men would extend a hand as an expression of friendship. If the sentiment was NOT friendship, those same hands would extend a sword or dagger.

Types of Handshakes

Not all handshakes are created equal. You’ve got your basic hand-in-hand shake with interlocking thumbs. Then, you have what’s called the hand hug – this is when the greeter places his or her hand over the other’s hand as a display of warmth, protection, friendship and trust. Politicians are big on that one.

If someone gives you a painful handshake, it’s called a crusher and it shows aggression. The Queen’s Fingertip is so named because the female presents her outstretched hand while the male lightly grasps just a few fingers. Some handshakes are combinations of hugs and shakes, usually reserved for males in friendly “buddy” fashion where each one comes in for the back pat and half hug.

If you take up a new language through BRIC Language Systems, you can further learn the nuances of each culture so you can properly greet others when in their home country.