The Not So Simple Handshake

Language Faux Pas24 February 20143.1k

Doing business in a range of countries can create challenges for firms. Culture and customs will differ and so it's important international companies are aware of this when trying to seal lucrative deals. 

You only get to make one first impression, so you want to make sure it counts. While many people will rely on the trusty handshake, which is accepted in the majority of the Western world, differences exist in its execution. 

Simple gestures and stances can vary considerably from country to country, so individuals have to make sure they are up to date on the cultural basics if they don’t want to be left red faced. 

Pamela Eyring, president and director of The Protocol School of Washington, thinks understanding the traditional greetings of a country is essential if firms want to build successful working partnerships. 

Writing in Reuters, she cautioned against social faux pas because of a lack of local knowledge. 

"Your understanding of the subtle, and not-so-subtle differences, as well as the traditional greetings of a country, conveys a great deal. It sends a message about how you view and value a culture and whether you respect your colleagues and potential partners," Ms Eyring stated. 

With such a richly diverse and complex business world, let's have a look at the intricacies of greeting in some countries.

While the handshake plays a big role in China, it usually has a much lighter grip and is accompanied by a slight nod of the head. Physical contact is not viewed as being very important to the process, but people should always try to project themselves as calm, collected and controlled. Business relationships are very formal, so individuals need to remember they are representing their company, while humor should be avoided to prevent jokes from being lost in translation. 

Despite the fact Hindi is the official language of India, English is commonly used for international commerce. However, as a mark of respect, businesspeople should still get their cards translated and they should be exchanged during the first meeting. Trust plays a big role in business in India, so it's important that foreign investors establish good working relationships from early on. While a handshake is fine, Indians themselves will typically use a Namaste, which is where the palms are brought together at chest level with a slight bow of the head.

Latin America
Handshakes in Latin America can go on for much longer than in countries such as the UK and USA, and pulling away too early can be seen as a mark of disrespect. There is also a less rigid definition of both time and personal space. This slightly more casual business environment means that it is not considered rude to be up to 30 minutes late for a meeting. Small talk is also encouraged, especially at the start of meetings, as people like to develop personal working relationship with associates before getting down to the finer details of an agreement. 

Arab countries
Etiquette in Arab countries differs from the Western world, as male friends will embrace and kiss each other on both cheeks following a light and lingering handshake. In general, physical contact with people of the same sex is much more commonplace, while men also stand very close together when having an important conversation. Topics of discussion also differ, as social conversations are more likely to take place during business meetings. 

While handshakes are the standard gesture, there are country-specific differences that should can be considered. For example, in Russia a long firm handshake is usually offered, while in France it is much more brisk and light. However, it is standard practice to let women and those in a higher rank to extend their hands first in Europe.


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