During the past few months, I’ve been in some cross cultural spaces in my country of origin. It’s been interesting to meet people from different cultures here and to see again the variety of subcultures found in a large country. One thing I’ve noticed again is that the U.S. is a very diverse country with many different ethnic groups and many people from other places visiting as students or working.
Anyway, what I’ve noticed is that long after visiting persons learn the English language well and have adapted to the local customs in the place where they study, work or reside, they can quickly revert to their cultures of origin when it comes to greeting people, especially greeting guests in their home when visiting another home or sometimes even in public. In other words, the language of greeting other persons may be English because they now live in the U.S. but the manner of greeting learned in their first/ native culture often remains.
If it’s up to us to choose, most of us have preferred cultural forms of greeting that we hold onto for a long time even after we’ve learned to speak a new language. There’s something deeply rooted about greeting styles that communicates much more than the words, Hello, Pleased to Meet You, etc. Hugs, handshakes with one or both hands, kisses on the cheek, or kisses on both cheeks between people of the same sex, high fives, low fives, abbreviated bows, putting both hands together in front of the chest, putting one hand on the heart and shaking hands with the other…these kinds of greeting gestures are automatic for many people, perhaps among the first things they are taught as children and so retain an abiding significance. Learning appropriate greetings can help build trust and foster better relationships.
These greetings are also very difficult to unlearn. One must be very intentional to communicate with the appropriate greeting gestures and not just use the right words. In our culture(s) of origin, we absorbed some cultural greeting styles. If we are not intentional, we’ll revert to what’s most comfortable to us; but in cross cultural spaces, greetings that misfire or even backfire can make our hosts or guests rather uncomfortable.
So learning the appropriate greetings ( including and especially the greeting gestures or “ceremonies”) in a cross cultural situation communicates respect and puts others at ease. A little learning can go a long way.
On the other hand, failure to greet properly might kill any opportunities for friendship, mutual understanding or business.
In this picture you can see what appears to be a Western woman dressed in Malaysian attire, probably intent upon greeting the Iranian President in a culturally appropriate way. Alas, in some cultures men do not greet women with a hand shake. This greeting didn’t really work, did it?
But what about this one?