Kissing, Hugging, Bowing & Shaking Hands: the Body Language in Communication

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What Do Greetings Have in Common?

Have you ever stood at the international terminal of an airport and watched people greeting their loved ones as they come into sight after a long airplane journey? It doesn’t take long observing people from different countries to recognize that not every culture greets the same way. You will see some groups of people exclaiming loudly, hugging and kissing, while you will see others bowing down to touch one another’s feet. Interpreting body language associated with greetings varies widely from culture to culture.

Understanding body language shows all greetings have some elements in common. First, greetings usually involve some kind of spoken language. Second, greetings usually involve some type of body language–especially between close friends or family who are being reunited.

What Elements of Greetings Tend to Vary?

Greetings are used worldwide, but types of greeting, and the usages of them, can be very different depending on the culture of the ones greeting each other. Body language and cultural differences mean the words used to greet people are different, and so are the actions that accompany the words.

Even within a culture, greetings have many forms. Two people may greet each other differently depending on familiarity, whether they are acquaintances or closer friends. In addition, greetings can depend on the social status, ranking, or respect level of the people greeting one another (for example, a younger person may greet in a particular way to show deference to an older).

Although it may be difficult to learn precisely how you should greet every person in a given culture, it is at the very least a good idea to know a general greeting before you visit a new country. Never assume that the way you are used to greeting people will be normal in the place you are going. For example, while it is normal for friends to hug each other in the United States, this greeting is considered very intimate by the French; but, on the other hand, many Americans are uncomfortable with the double-kiss-on-the-cheeks greeting used by the French. So before you visit a new country, try to familiarize yourself with their greetings and the appropriate body language for greetings.

Greetings in Different Cultures

Here is a closer look at some of the world’s cultures, including how people of these cultures greet one another:

  • Great Britain - British verbal greetings may be accompanied by a handshake. A small kiss (just a peck on the cheek) may be given between females, or perhaps between a female and a male, but not between two males.
  • France - One common French greeting is a light handshake. Another common greeting is a kiss on the left cheek followed by a kiss on the right cheek. Depending on the situation or the people greeting, the kiss may be just a touching of cheeks or a real smack.
  • New Zealand (Maori people) - The Maori greeting, called the “Hongi,” means, “Sharing of breath.” In this greeting, the two people touch or rub their noses together and inhale.
  • United States - Although sometimes just a smile accompanies the greeting, a firm handshake is a common greeting between males, and happens (less commonly) between a male and a female. Women tend to shake hands with one another only if it is their first time meeting, or if it is a business situation. Female friends often greet with a hug.
  • Mexico - Handshakes are common, and may be accompanied by a strong “abrazo” (hug) and a few hearty pats on the back between men, if they know each other well. A kiss is also a common form of greeting, and is usually just a touching of cheeks with a kissing sound rather than a real kiss. Unlike the French double-kiss, the kiss greeting in Mexico is just done on one cheek.
  • Japan - Bowing is a common form of greeting. The bow can range from just a slight nod of the head to a full bow where the person is bent ninety degrees at the waist. If the greeting happens in the home, on the floors that are covered by tatami mats, it is common for people to get on their knees to bow. To learn more about how to bow in Japan, particularly in business settings, you may want to check out the animated video with instructions listed in the References section at the end of this article.

If you learn the proper way to greet someone in another culture, including understanding body language, you may be pleasantly surprised at how well you will be received when traveling to another country. Greetings are often people’s first impressions of one another, so learning how to greet someone appropriately is important in making a good first impression.