Handshakes in different cultures

  • 18 February 2015 | Daphney Mngomeni
Image courtesy of Helena Eriksson

The rules for saying hello in different cultures, especially as you travel further from home, can get quite complicated.

The most common greeting around the world is a handshake – which can also get a bit confusing, as there are a number of variations (handshakes are also used on meeting, parting and expressing gratitude).

In some parts of Northern Europe, a quick, firm handshake is the norm, but in parts of Southern Europe, and Central and South America, handshakes tend to be longer and less firm, with the left hand usually touching the clasped hands or elbow.

What works in one part of the world might not work in another.

Generally in business, one is told to have a firm and steady grip when shaking hands – which is not always wise, depending on where in the world you are travelling. For instance in some countries and cultures, firm handshakes are seen as rude and a sign of aggression.

In places such as China; the Middle East; North, Southern and West Africa; and South America, handshakes are usually lighter and last much longer than in Western countries.

If in doubt as to how long to keep a handshake going, take your cue from your counterpart: follow their lead and never release pressure from the handshake before they do, as it may be considered rude.

In some cultures and countries, such as Brazil, France and Morocco, handshakes are usually accompanied by light kisses on the cheek, even in business situations.

The handshake is an ancient process that dates back as far as the 5th century BC in ancient Greece.

The original intention of handshakes was to show oneself as friendly. In medieval times, men who were constantly covered in armour would use handshakes as a way to show friendship.

Apart from handshakes being a sign of friendliness, they were also used to show peace by demonstrating hands holding no weapons.