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Greeting Etiquette

Intercultural competence is the ability to communicate with people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Greeting Etiquette

Greeting Etiquette

Cultural "Backpacks"

To a great extent culture is about social codes. Many of these codes are hidden, even to ourselves. Throughout childhood and adolescence we adopt more and more of these codes from our environment, our parents, siblings, teachers, peers and role models. We store all this information in invisible "backpacks" that we carry with us all our lives.This information expresses our culture's values and beliefs.

Question to ponder

  1. What does our way of greeting people for the first time reveal about our culture?

The first meeting

Maori Warrior Greeting
Maori Warrior Greeting

In all cultures the first meeting with representatives from other cultures is crucial. First and foremost; is the "stranger" a friend or a foe? Should we meet him/her with respect and warmth or anxiety or hostility? If this is the first friendly encounter, cultural expressions to signify this might vary a lot, but they always imply respect. Yet, the tricky question is: how do we show respect?

Questions to ponder

  1. How do you show respect when you greet someone?
  2. What do you consider as a disrepectful greeting?

Shaking hands

A Norwegian school class was asked to compile a list of 10 important factors that could contribute to good communication. Shaking hands was ranked as the number one act in establishing a friendly atmosphere at a formal meeting.

This reveals a lot about the values intertwined in Norwegian teenagers' greeting etiquette. These values are invisible, even to ourselves, and revolve around respect, perception of genders, intimacy and degrees of formality. In Norway shaking hands is a sign of respect in formal meetings, whereas shaking hands in other cultures might be seen as disrespectful in formal settings.

Questions to ponder

  1. What does the shaking of hands in formal settings reveal about Norwegian culture?
  2. Where do you think it is seen as disrespectful to shake hands among people you do not know? What does that reveal about the culture involved?

The first impression

Numerous psychological tests and experiments have confirmed that a stranger will form an opinion of you within a maximum of 60 seconds at your first encounter. As the saying goes: "You will never get a second chance to make a great first impression."

Questions to ponder

  1. Do you agree, is the first impression the most important?
  2. Is it possible do you think to change an unfavourable first opinion to a more favourable one?

Formal or informal? Guest or host?

What is the dilemma involved here? How do you think it was solved?
What is the dilemma involved here? How do you think it was solved?

Without doubt, the way people greet each other they do not know, can open the doors to friendship and mutual understanding. However, the context matters a lot. What is considered formal and what is considered informal depends on cultural aspects. Furthermore, what is your role? Are you a guest or a host? As a guest; should you adopt the greeting rituals in your host's culture and stick to the saying: "When in Rome, do like the Romans"? The part of the host is not any easier; should you stick to your own ways, or should you consider making adaptations to avoid offending your guest?

Questions to ponder

  1. Do you agree with the saying: "When in Rome, do like the Romans"?
  2. Why does context matter in intercultural meetings?

Intercultural competence

Intercultural competence is the ability to communicate with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. So, at a first meeting, you have 60 seconds to make up your mind; whether to kiss on the cheeks, shake hands or make a solemn bow and thus demonstrate if you are interculturally competent or not. Luckily, if you are going to travel, you most probably have time to prepare. Check out these websites to avoid the worst blunders:

  1. Wikitravel
  2. International Etiquette Guide (Scroll to Country Etiquette Guides)
  3. Islamic Etiquettes


  1. Try the multiple choice task based on greeting etiquette when meeting someone from the following countries: Japan, Ghana, New Zealand (Maori), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico, Great Britain and Indonesia
    The task is located in the link collection.
  2. Below are two examples, A and B, of greeting customs. Pick countires/cultures from the websites above and use the same criteria (how, origin, where and why) to present their greeting customs.


How? Rubbing noses (Hongi) and breathing with closed eyes.
Origin? Traditional Maori greeting.
Where? New Zealand
Why? The head and the face are considered holy parts of the body and the Maori think that this tradition of pressing the noses together to breathe the same air, was created by the gods. If you as a guest are welcomed in this way, it means that you are accepted as a part of their people. In the old days the Hongi greeting entailed privileges as well as duties.


How? By saying the words: "I see you"
Origin? Traditonal Na'vi greeting.
Where? The fictional planet Pandora (in the film Avatar)
Why? The Na'vi people greet each other in this way to acknowledge that there is a divine spirit present at the meeting. The Natives believe that everything is interconnected and that the holy Ey'wa is present in all beings and objects.

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