The Definitive Guide To Saying Hello To (Almost) Everyone

Handshakes, fist bumps, high fives and kisses. Our guide to greetings and small talk in different countries.

The handshake has never been simple. It was, after all, born of mistrust; an overt demonstration that one is unarmed. Nowadays the main concern isn’t whether your counterpart is packin’ – it’s whether you’re going to meet his or her hand at the right pace, trajectory and with due firmness.

Hand-wringing experts have detonated a cluster bomb of categories from the teacup to the bone crusher to the politician. Each of these categories gives way to a cascade of personality traits, an understanding of which could reduce the average duration of a job interview to a mere five seconds. Teacuppers, for example, are conniving little devils that avoid palm-to-palm contact by cupping their hands. They are not to be trusted. Bone crushers are out to intimidate you in a macho display of a weak ego. The politician will enact a sleight, swift move of his second hand to cover yours. He’s trying to win you over with false sincerity. Don’t vote for him.

And these categorizations are just in the English speaking world. In Morocco and Turkey, a gentle shake is much preferred to the stout, assuring, firm handshake favored in the US. And one shouldn’t be too quick about it either. Let the hand linger. Unless you’re in France, of course, in which case shake quickly and lightly.

But how true is all of this? Globalization irons out the creases of cultural idiosyncrasy and the humble handshake is by no means immune. It’s now more likely that a twenty-something German male will greet a twenty-something French male on the streets of Berlin with an Obama-approved fist bump, and depart with a wide five, arms outstretched and swooping to meet in a fleeting clasp in the middle.

But what would happen if our twenty-something German male were to meet a sixty-something Italian at a formal business lunch? Would they fist bump? Most probably not. These variants of the handshake are copied and choreographed in order to impute familiarity, whether authentic or not. Judging the formality of a situation, and thereby the kind of greeting one should give and may receive, is becoming ever more complex. Add layers of intercultural complexity and we enter a minefield of explosive etiquette. Would you know how to greet a Spanish girl, or a Bulgarian senior, or a German native to Hamburg? And would your natural topics of small talk be met with enthusiasm or bemusement? What happens when different cultures of small talk collide? Let’s take a whistlestop tour of a few cultural norms of which you should be aware.

A few weeks after moving to Spain, I had my first experience as a lone foreigner in a multitude of Spanish speakers. I was listening attentively, trying to decipher sentences and contributing with clumsy, slapstick self-deprecation. Three girls arrived and, on being introduced, I remained nonchalantly in my wicker chair. Never had I been so reprimanded by someone I had known so briefly. Like drill sergeants whose authority had been questioned, they ordered me to stand and bestow a kiss on either cheek. A formality can be so much more than just a formality if it isn’t fulfilled.

In Spain men and women greet others with two kisses, delivered from left to right, often taking hold of a shoulder while doing so. Shaking hands isn’t something the Spanish are keen on – “you might be contagious!”

The weather and fútbol are considered small talk staples, but I found the most common intro when unexpectedly encountering an acquaintance in the street was, ¿a dónde vas? – where are you going? An achingly simple, slightly interrogatory opener that launches one into moderately more purposeful small talk. It’s worth noting that there are some significant variations across Spanish speaking countries when it comes to greetings. In the Dominican Republic, for example, men greet each other with a fist bump. This is accompanied by a ¿Qué dicen?, to which one responds to ta bien.

When I rolled up in Perugia at the beginning of this year to study Italian, I was bursting with confidence. I’d been studying avidly on the train down from Munich, and half the words seemed virtually identical to their Spanish counterparts. This was going to be easy. I ventured out onto the streets on the first evening and started headbutting the locals. You heard me. Headbutting.

“Ciao” reigns supreme in Italy. Regardless whether you meet someone during the day, night, or whether you’re saying hello or goodbye (one-word-fluency!). However, make sure you respect the distinction between the formal and informal ways to greet and address.

What had they done to deserve such persecution? After two years of diligently delivering two kisses from left to right in Spain, the Italians had the temerity to greet me with kisses from the right to the left. Reprogramming one’s mind to accommodate for this is tantamount to driving on the wrong side of the road – it takes a few scrapes and near misses before it becomes second nature. If you’re a creature of habit, stick to holidays in Bulgaria – they also kiss from left to right, although they have the odd custom of using different languages for simple exchanges; the Italian ciao to say goodbye and the French merci for thank you, for example.

German is an angry, harsh, jagged language born from the vocal chords of angsty Barbarians after a winter deprived of sausages and Glühwein, right? It’s a stereotype that is promptly obliterated when you first bump into a friend who greets you with a short na? delivered on a cushion of velvet charm. Learn the word, for there is a world in this grain of sand; how are you? … it’s nice to see you … what’s up? … everything ok? … tell me what you’ve been up to … Despite this web of meaning, or perhaps because of it, the most common response is … na? … with just a little more inflexion. The unabashedly, adorably camp tchüssi is challenged only by the Dutch doei doei for the most saccharine goodbye in Europe.

Greetings often depend on where exactly you are in Germany. In the north you’ll be greeted with a moin moin while in the south you may be on the receiving end of a servus. A hallo or a guten Tag will get you started everywhere, however.

Young people often greet one another with a hug, but in large groups a simple nod of the head and a hallo zusammen (hello together) suffices. Interestingly, greetings remain stubbornly conventional within traditional companies with employees greeting one another formally with a firm shake of the hand and addressing one another by title and surname; guten Tag Herr Wowereit. I once taught English in a cigarette factory just outside Hannover and broke the record for hands shaken within two minutes. No adjudicators were present.

In Austria one greets with a servus, and they’re very attentive to titles, so pay attention, Doctor Doe. Women often say hello with two kisses, one on each cheek and always starting on the right and then moving to the left (they border Italy, after all). Men will normally shake hands.

In France people greet with a bonjour or the more informal salut. And if you thought the formalities of kissing were somewhat novel, be prepared for the bise, planting up to four kisses on the cheeks of the French. The number is dependent upon region, so you’ll need to brush up on some local knowledge before mingling with the haute société. Pay strict attention to the formal vous form for older people and strangers. Incidentally, Brazilians haven’t agreed on the number of kisses either, but numbers vary less dramatically between one and three. Further to the well-known tudo bem?, greetings include the joyously concise oi and e ai. Romanians, like their Bulgarian neighbors, sometimes add a touch of continental flair to their informal greetings with a salut! salut! or a servus for hello.

Are we giving the kiss too much lip service? Then you’ll be glad for the Swedes and the Greeks. These two nationalities often go in for the back pat-slap-clap. The Greeks use it as a follow-up to two kisses, while it’s the successor to a short handshake or hug for the Swedes.

If all of the above greetings are too touchy-feely for you, you’ll find respite in Japan where the standard gesture is a reverential bow. No physical contact required. If a handshake does occur, make sure to still lower your gaze as a sign of respect to the other person. Small talk can be about anything, but make sure to save it until after work.

In Sweden one greets with a hej or a longer heeeeej if you’re particularly pleased to see whoever has just entered audible territory. And then you speak about the weather and Eurovision.

And so it would seem that even faced with the normalizing powers of globalization, there is no such thing as a simple hello. The dissolution of distinct gradations of formality where certain behaviors are prudent is a common trend, but knowing each country’s etiquette is the first step to navigating this little gauntlet of intercultural communication.

Master the art of small talk, everywhere.
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