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The Handshake and such

Some cultural nuances dissected, with not much of reverence or tact.

“A handshake is a universal token of friendliness here. Be it in office, or at home or in the street when two cab drivers greet each other. Something that may not be done even in offices back in Trichur.”

I came across this at a post in the Girl-with-big-eyes’ blog and was reminded of something that happened a very long time back. I had gone back to India for hols and was attending a friend’s brother’s wedding in Trichur. This friend and I had been to school together, but after high school, we had gone our separate ways. She was introducing me to her new college classmates, and I, like a normal person would do, held out my hand for a “how-do-you-do” handshake. The guy looked positively shocked. My friend (we both had studied in a conservative all-girls convent school) looked so scandalized that I thought she would faint. Well, now that I had shook my hands with one, if I didn’t shake hands with the rest, that would be too much favouritism for everyone to stomach. So, I bravely kept at it. After shaking hands with abt three ppl, everyones gazes made it pretty clear they thought I was an alien. Oh what the heck – to my credit, I shook hands firmly and politely with all 8 of the new people I met that day. Trust me, I was embarrassed – I had somehow forgotten the old Trichurian rule of just nod and smile when you are introduced. But I didn’t think much about it until on a recent trip to India, I came across one of the guys I had met that time and he remembered me as the “girl who shook hands”! I am not trying to belittle Trichur – come on, I love my home town, but really! whats wrong with a handshake?

Its very intriguing how differently people across the world greet each other. Considering how much importance a first impression makes, I don’t think we give enough thought to this.

I never grew up with the tradition of touching my elders’ feet – but I am expected to do so whenever I meet the parents of my close friends from the North. And my recently married cousin’s wife is from the North and she does what my dad calls “a dive” whenever she visits our home. But what surprised me was that my mom was very impressed with her ‘humility’ and ‘good behavior’. Now, I just hope my mom doesn’t get it into her head that it will be a good way for me to show my respects – come on mom! its just a Northie tradition.

Farther away from home, Germans and Americans squeeze your hand! It doesn’t help that some of them are tall and big and strong – I have to remind myself every time “Squeeze, Su, Squeeze harder!” – lest I come across as not polite enough. I had a French friend who insisted on kissing me on my cheeks everytime we met. I was visibly taken aback the first few times, and he nonchalantly explained, “I am French. I can kiss you when we meet”. Hmm..I never really found out if it was just his greeting for girls or if it was really the French greeting.

A Brazilian acquaintance would hug me everytime we met – now I had reasons not to piss off this person – so I googled and found out thats really how the Brazilians do it – and so I endured the hugs. To be honest, it was really only a symbolic hug, nothing that makes even a touch-queasy person like me uncomfortable. But bottom line is, if you are in Brazil (and I have heard this is true for some other SouthAm cultures), you might wanna give hugsy a try, or at least be open to it.

In many Western cultures, men stand up before they are introduced to someone important – and the chivalrous ones stand up for women too. Standing up shows politeness and respect. Same goes for India – but its not the men who stand up – its usually the younger person who stands up for the elder one. I remember I did this once in Singapore, and was met with a startled “is-there-a-thorn-in-your-seat?” look.

I have been asked an umpteen times why Indian men are “so touchy” with each other. People, please dont take offence at me – I have already endured enough being at the wrong end of this question. If you have been to Little India in Singapore, you will know what these people are asking about – you will see Indian men who walk around with their elbows on the next guys shoulder. I have even seen a few hold hands. Now if this was restricted to Little India in Singapore, I could have shooed off the question. But look around you, Indian men are definitely more touchy – with other men (thanks to Indian traditions, they stay off from women – thank god for that!). Even in business contexts, I have decidedly seen non-Indians squirm when an Indian man, with all friendliness and innocence, would give them a hard and a tad bit too long pat on the back.

People around here pass you their visiting cards like it is such a no-issue. Don’t make that mistake in Asia. In Singapore, make sure you look at it if you receive a visiting card. Look impressed – fake it if you aren’t – it would only do you good. I am told its even stricter in Japan – when you are handing out your visiting card, make sure its in such a way that its not upside down for the receiver – hold it at the two tips nearer to you with both your hands. And bow till your nose touches your feet ( Ok, I am just kidding abt the last one! ;o)) But talking abt the Japanese bowing – I have to relate this rather unrelated incident – our office building used to house a lot of Japanese banks as well. So one day I am in a crowded lift, late for a meeting and wishing people would just stop trying to squeeze into this lift – when in comes a Japanese dude – complete with a double-breasted jacket and pin-striped shirt (a digression in a digression: if you doing business with the Japs and you dont know what to wear – err on the formal side – even my strictly-Tshirts-only husband bought a couple of decent shirts and suits when he worked for a Japanese company). Back to single-level digression: The Japanese dude who was standing near the lift door bowed his head low and long as a gesture of good bye to his business associates outside the lift. And the supersensitive lift door that was almost about to close went back to being open! A few seconds of impatient wait – and the door is about to close again – and again our pin-stripe dude bows – i should change the adjective to ‘wide’! And strictly no exaggeration – this continued for three times until someone grunted in impatience and he finally limited his bow to a slight nod of the head!

Back to greetings and introductions – have you seen two Saudis greet each other? – They would grasp each other’s right hand, place the left hand on the other’s right shoulder and exchange kisses on each cheek. Even men to men! Thank god, I was a kid when I was living in Saudi Arabia and was generally ignored. And by the time I was old enough, they denied me a visa – do you know the country has no provisions for tourist visa! You have to be invited to enter- and to leave the country, even a foreigner needs an exit permit. So, if you cant get any of the Sheiks to invite you over, you are never gonna see the Laila & Majnu caves and their really pretty oases. This might come as a surprise – but I din’t have too many complaints about wearing the Burkha – where else can you go to the supermarket in your PJs? and never have to worry about a bad hair day? Before I forget – don’t ask a Saudi man about his wife – your intentions will be construed as everything under the sun except politeness.

This has turned out to be a rather long post and I just wanted to narrate my handshake crib. But before I sign off, just one more thing I learned today. In Germany, say only exactly what you mean. Do not exaggerate, do not use superlatives or superfluous words unless necessary. I asked my usual “Guten Morgen! How are you?” to a colleague in the lift today morning. She replied with a matter-of-fact “OK” and a polite return “How are you?”. It was morning, I had just had my coffee and was feeling chirpy – so I breezily said “Great”. And that was a mistake – I got back a quizzical “Great?”. People dont feel “great” around here without a reason – how could I have let that slip my mind? I spent the next couple of floors explaining how excited I am abt my vacation next week and thats why I am feeling “great”. Ah so! everyones happy – sorry – “OK!” again.

Alrighty, end of post. I have tried to put down whatever I can remember, but its kinda limited to my personal experiences. The ads from the world’s local bank have given us all a couple more insights. But there is so much more to go – I shudder at the many blunders I am yet to make.

Would love to hear it if you have any experiences/anecdotes/advice to share.

Posted in Culture & Languages, Favourites, Musings on May 12, 2005

13 Responses

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  1. Pramod says

    Just got back after a long week and weekend in London – so have lots to catch up before leaving out again for another business trip. Actually I want to make a long comment here – esp. since I have lived across India and now in few countries here in Europe and have travelled quite a bit.
    Its an interesting area. I will write once I have more time.

    By the way, in France though it varies from North to South (from 2 to 3 to 4 kisses) its a common custom! And hugs too. Though hugs are reserved for the closest of friends and not for everyone. (Thats even more in Germany actually – and notice the way the back in massaged – you may not see this unless you have a very close German friend – but you can observe when families get together etc.)

    One big diff between Indians (perhaps Asians too) is how less physical we are. Every day morning when you walk to your office – a nod and a half smile is enough in most Indian offices. But in most European cultures you greet with the name. Again the details vary from coutnry to country and region to region!

    About business cards, while not taken as seriously as the Japanese, its not good manners not to read someone’s business card when given to you. But I think we in India we overuse business cards as well – just like we do with most things.

    And we mallus are an extreme. We just dont seem to have much in terms of greeting customs. In the north (I have lived most of my life in various parts of India, and my wife is from North) – there is much more elaborate custom of greetings – including as you rightly mentioned – touching feet. Just like you I am not into it – but my parents adore most of my northie friends who touch their feet! It just is part of their custom, just like removing shoes while entering house for many of us!

    Check this site out for more on international etiquette:

  2. Abi says


    Nice post.

    I have taken the liberty of nominating this post to the Blog Mela over at Shanti’s site Hope you don’t mind!

    I look forward to more of your great stuff. Cheers!

  3. venkat says

    ahhh..don’t get me started on the French kissing thing…it varies from 2-4, as the the earlier poster mentioned, and you can never be sure. Again, guys kiss each other too, at least here in Brussels (insert std. Seinfeldian “not that there is nothing wrong with it” disclaimer here). Useful post – I actually learnt some things

  4. Anjali says

    the kissing thing is confusing, man!! Belgians kiss thrice, the french kiss twice, the Spaniards just once (and as my good friend at work would want me to say – so do the Catalans, who of course are different from the Spaniards.)

    We had this Latin American guy at work, who had come down for some training to the US office. He would take every opportunity to give everyone a ‘good’ hug. We used to grin and bear till we heard the girls in the LatAm office complain about him during the training. He was subsequently fired (it had nothing to do with his hugging, i think.)

    But talking about India…..i grew up in Bombay, and it was quite common in college to hug friends. In fact, i clearly remember my parents not liking this practice at all, because the hug had no gender barrier. So girls and guys alike used to hug each other. Was quite the trendy thing to do then. My cousins in Kerala and Chennai picked this up from me when we used to meet during school/college vacations. In fact, I still hug all my friends and cousins……feels warmer to me than a handshake. I reserve the handshake for people I don’t want to hug! :-)

    Which reminds me…..on our recent trip to the US, I stayed with a friend whose parents were visiting from India. As I was leaving, I hugged my friend, then her mom (who gave me a hug back) and then automatically went to hug her dad (without even thinking that he is this 65+ South Indian mama who probably never hugged his daughter let alone a visitor to his daughter’s house!) I have never seen a more embarrassed man…….of course, i quickly and gracefully backed away but made me realize how “un-Indian” i had become these days. Something I would never have done in India seemed like the most natural thing to do here….i hope i can unlearn all this when (if) we ever go back.

    Anyways, nice post. I enjoy reading your blogs. Sorry for the VERY LONG comment!

  5. Surya says

    Hi Pramod,

    Good you warned me abt the German back massages – havent seen them yet, and hope I wont be at the receiving end. I agree Indians tends to be less physical in terms of greetings – and its certainly hard to wear off, esp when it comes to strangers. hope to hear more abt ur experiences once u r back.

  6. Surya says

    Hi Abi,

    Thanks for the nomination! Havent seen you aro before – welcome to the blog! =)

  7. Surya says

    Hi Venkat,

    I still find it wierd when guys kiss each other..I can imagine the confusions when each person decides to kiss a different number of times – wonder if there is a heirarchy to decide whose choice wins..

  8. Surya says

    Hi Anjali,

    Maybe the Catalans can choose to kiss five times to be different from the Spaniards – and to make life even more complicated for the rest of us..I had met a “Catalan” during a recent training..the “Catalan & the rest of Spain” thing is realy amusing ..and often entertaining.

    I think unlearning will probably be as difficult as it was to learn the new ways..i havent tried it yet, but considering the blunders i make everytime I go home, it doesnt look that easy..!

    Thanks for the comment – and really, dont apologize for the long comment. It is very interesting and I loved it! Cheers..

  9. Anurag says

    When in Bahrain I was waiting for the elevator with this obvious “local” gentleman. Inadvertently our eyes met and he he said something in Arabic which was looonnong and involved a lot of smiles.

    I said “I am sorry I am a foreigner. Could you translate what you just said?”

    He smiled and said “I said Hello”!!

    I later found out that the Arab people have an elaborate way of greeting each other!! Man, I felt like such a fool.

  10. kp says

    Nice one..but why isnt anybody bothered about the disappearing namaste or namaskaram ?? I personally feel that one namaskaram along with a warm smile and a gentle nod is worth more than a 1000 handshakes..In case anybody is wondering…I am from Trichur.

  11. Angela says

    Hi Surya,
    I am a 29, woman, from Venezuela (South America) and going to Delhi next week. I found all this very interesting since I am visiting a friend from college, and I was wondering how to say hello at the airport or generally speaking how to behave in public spaces.

    See, he is Indian, and I met him in US. We were very close back then and also lived in a different culture. Now, as we are ready to remeet I am not sure how to say hello. Any hints?

    To give you a clue of where I come from and to contribute to your cultural awareness about handshakes and the sort, let me share my own experience in Latin America (I travel a lot because of my job):

    Venezuela: first time you meet somebody, you do handshakes. In informal settings, you will always kiss once in the cheek after that. In business settings, all depends on the raport between the people. For example, I kiss good morning and goodbye my colleagues and boss every day. If somebody is departing or arriving for long time, or it is an special ocassion (a lost, birthday, promotion)you also hug close and shortly. This is between men and women or women between themselves. Men only do handshakes, and maybe some padding in the back or a hug, depending on closeness. In family settings, some men also kiss their fathers, grandfathers or close uncles.

    Colombia: handshake is common, but hugging is more restricted to informal friends and family. In business, I would say handshakes is the norm. This applies to men and women.

    Argentina: same as in Venezuela. Only that men kiss men too. Twice. Once I was standing at the entrance of a manufacturing plant when I saw about 50 workermen kissing goodbye each other.

    Mexico: a lot less physical contact. Handshake are the norm, and it is not that common to kiss people. Same for hugging and padding.

    Brazil: two kisses while holding your shoulders to say hello and goodbye. Same as in other countries, maybe introductions and business environment will only include handshaking.

    US: kissing or hugging is not that common until you get really acquaintant to somebody.

  12. Surya says

    Hi Angela,

    Thanks for the comment – it is very informative!

    About meeting your friend – I don’t think you should be unduly worried. If he knows you well and your culture, I think a hug or kiss on the cheek (or whichever greeting you used before you parted), would not be inappropriate.

    But if you do meet any of his family members or friends – especially men, a hug or kiss may be considered too personal. Would be a good chance to try out the Indian greeting of “Namaste” – put your hands together in front of you (like when you pray) and say “Namaste”.

    Have a great time in India =)

  13. Srijith says

    Once I was standing at the entrance of a manufacturing plant when I saw about 50 workermen kissing goodbye each other.

    That should have been fun to watch :)

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