Translating the Handshake Across Cultures

Shaking hands may seem like a universally accepted form of greeting your counterparts, however, what would you do if the other person doesn’t offer their hand? Such as if you are greeting a woman in a conservative Muslim culture in the Middle East, or when your Japanese business contact greets you with a bow!

These simple Do’s and Don’t when shaking hands with someone from around the world can go a long way!

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Middle East:

Handshakes in the Middle East are much softer, where a firm (bone crushing) handshake is considered to be rude. Your counterpart may hold your hand for longer as a sign of respect and a warm welcome, which may make you feel uncomfortable.

As you shake hands, you can greet each other by saying ‘As-salaam alaykum’ (peace be upon you) and ‘Wa alaykum as-salaam’ (peace be upon you, too) if you are responding.

Do: Adapt to the softer style of the handshake and if you are a male, be prepared for a close Arab friend to embrace you; it is common for men to hug and kiss one another on the cheeks. If you are a female, greeting a Muslim male, it is acceptable to put your hand over your heart and say hello.

Don’t: Extend your hand for a shake with a Muslim woman unless you are a female. Also, do not end the handshake before your counterpart does.

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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 eastern 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.

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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.

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Latin America:

Latin Americans and Brazilians are demonstrative in their greetings. A firm handshake is appropriate at 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; just the one kiss in São Paolo and 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.



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.


About the author

Moaz Khan
Moaz Khan

Moaz is an expert Marketeer with over 12 years experience in Digital Marketing, Marketing Strategy, and Management Planning, within the Education and edTech space, with a strong aptitude for Problem Solving and developing an engaging User Experience.

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