Handshakes are not that difficult!

I wanted to write about small talk this weekend, but the living cringing embarassment who is currently in the position of President of the United States has brought an interesting topic to my attention – handshakes. Who knew it could be so difficult! Well, the good news is – for an adult of at least average intelligence it’s not that difficult, but there are course different things to consider in different countries.

So let’s have a look at handshake etiquette. One thing valid all around the world is that you don’t refuse an offered handshake unless you are five or younger, or have so little social finesse that you shouldn’t be in a position requiring handshakes anyway.

In Germany, we like handshakes. We are a quite formal culture and therefore greetings are formal as well – formality is seen as a sign of respect and therefore informality can be seen as a lack of respect. Within the business context, handshakes are always expected (not with your everyday colleagues, of course). Regardless of the context, if you meet someone for the first time, you are usually expected to shake hands. Younger people are far less formal and don’t shake hands so often, so if you are unsure, you can just wait and see. Still, an offered handshake is never refused and it is usually recommendable to rather be too formal in Germany than not formal enough.

The person higher in rank (here, gender does not come into play) offers the hand. Women offer the hand to men, older people to younger people. When you are the host, you are always the one offering the hand – first to the person highest in rank (again, regardless of gender, though some prefer to shake hands with present women first). Upon the first meeting, the handshake is usually combined with the introduction – each person says his or her name.

To make it a bit more complicated – you just read that gender does not usually come into play when there are people of different rank. However, if your meet people from your work environment in a social context, gender comes before rank. Work-related meeting: greet male boss before female co-worker (as said before: some might do it differently). Private party: greet female co-worker before male boss.

All this is sometimes hard to get right, depending on the situation and the amount of people. It’s good to be aware of these rules and try to employ them, but a minor faux-pas will be overlooked.

If you have to greet several people of approximately the same age and gender, please don’t ask for everybody’s age to ensure proper greeting order ;-). Just greet them one after the other with no preference.

Germans prefer a firm (but not break-someone’s-hand-firm) and also a short handshake. The “shake” is not an instruction!

In trainings, I’m often asked how people greet each other in Germany when they are more familiar with each other and past the handshake state. It differs a lot. I have friends I embrace, other where I just say “hello”, some people like the cheek kisses, others might exchange a friendly slap on the back. There is no set rule (yes, I know, we’re talking about Germany, but there you go). When I’m not sure how to greet someone, I just wait and see what they do and usually go along with it.

In Muslim countries, it is not customary for people of a different gender to shake hands. Many Muslim men therefore will not shake hands with women.

In Latin America, women often don’t shake hands, even when meeting for the first time and/or in the business context, but exchange cheek kisses.

In many Asian countries, the handshake is not a custom, people greet each other with bows (foreigners are often greeted with a handshake, though). I sometimes have trainings with Asian participants and the greeting used by the participant and me is usually a light handshake combined with a slight bow. I have to admit that I’m so used to shaking hands upon the first meeting that I often do it automatically, though people from Asian countries usually shake hands when meeting with Europeans or Americans. I think the combination of handshake and bow is a nice way to combine greeting traditions.

As I wrote, in Germany we prefer a short and firm handshake. In some other areas – Southern Europe, Latin America, Muslin countries – the handshake is long and ending it too early could be seen as insulting. When meeting with somebody from countries in these areas, you might want to let them decide when to end the handshake.

Within Europe, North America and Australia, a handshake comes with eye contact, whereas in China there should be no eye contact – lowering your eyes would be appropriate.

You see, there are some potential pitfalls in handshakes and greetings in general. When travelling to another country or whenever you have international business dealings, it would be advisable to get information about proper greeting protocol – especially when dealing with people of the other gender. Whenever you are not sure, watching and learning is the best option – in most countries the recommendation is to wait for the highest in rank to offer the hand anyway. If a hand is offered to you, please shake it.

If you thought you could relax after the greeting – the same procedure applies to farewells, but by then you went through the whole thing once already, so it should be a piece of cake.

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