In international business, we often hear that cultural awareness is one of the most important things to hone. But why? And how does it all play out in a more holistic approach to help you succeed in your business dealings? While your product ultimately makes or breaks your business, good cultural awareness can help build productive and mutually beneficial business relationships. And relationships are what ultimately make a business successful from the inside out.
Throughout this multi-part series, we will examine several aspects of cultural awareness, the foundations of why it is the way it is, and how we can best communicate cross-culturally to build strong relationships. Let’s start with the foundational handshake.
One of the first things Americans and several Western cultures do when meeting someone new (covid aside) is shake hands. This gesture is believed to be a sign of peace, proof that one is not bearing weapons and extending a hand toward each other, showing further trust. It’s even believed that the up-and-down motion can dislodge any hidden weapons.
The handshake was depicted historically as far back as the Odyssey and the Iliad by Homer, some 2700 years ago. More recently, the handshake was popularized in the 17th century by Quakers. This iteration was a transition from the bow or curtsey, used to symbolize a more egalitarian shift. Handshakes have become so defining that there are countless videos, tutorials, and articles on how to do it properly.
In the US, handshakes are common with the right hand, a firm grip, and eye contact. It can typically be done with each person regardless of sex. At the same time, not everyone has those same approaches to handshakes.
Very firm handshakes, for instance, are practiced among men in Brazil, Italy, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. While lighter handshakes are more the norm in South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
Age can also determine the order in which a person’s hand is shaken first. In China and the United Arab Emirates, the oldest of the group is greeted first. In China, a light handshake and a slight bow are practiced, and one should try not to make eye contact directly or pull away too soon.
Sex can also play a significant role in a handshake. In Australia, women can offer a handshake to a man, but women do not shake the hands of other women. In Russia, it is more traditional for a man to kiss a woman’s hand. Conservative Muslim societies discourage handshakes between men and women entirely.
The pacing of the handshake can also vary. In France, a light, quick handshake is the norm, while others can be prolonged and result in handholding, like in Saudi Arabia. In fact, two men holding hands in this culture is a very warm expression; in reverse, not touching or shaking hands between men in Saudi Arabia can be seen as disrespectful. In some African countries, a prolonged handshake or handholding can signify a closed conversation, but if two people are not shaking hands, you are welcome to join them.
Some countries, such as Japan, do not have the tradition of shaking hands at all. You will find a bow is more common. If working with the Japanese, handshakes are becoming more commonplace, but it is best to let your counterpart lead the interaction and follow suit. People from Thailand will often place their palms togetherat the chest and bow as a formal greeting called a Wai (pronounced “why”). It is customary to return this good-willed gesture.
If you are worried, the best etiquette is to follow your hosts’ lead and act with grace if you misstep. Before you conduct business internationally or visit your partners overseas, it is important to research their handshake methodology and the context of the culture overall. This research will lend valuable insights to your partners, help you avoid blunders, and go a long way to building concrete relationships for the future.
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