Bow, Sniff, Shake: Your Foolproof Guide to Greetings Abroad

My most recent article (“Use With Caution: Hand Gestures Mean Very Different Things Outside the U.S.“) was the top-read article last week on Avaya Connected. There’s only one possible reason, right?


Yes, fear. We’re all scared of making a cultural faux pas, of unintentionally offending a business partner, of burning bridges and, you guessed it, embarrassing ourselves.

Navigating international business cultures can be difficult–almost as difficult as walking in heels for an entire day (stay with me here).

Speaking of heels, flashback to one of my first days on the job at Avaya. After a wonderful, albeit tiring, day of work, I kicked my stilettos off and put my feet up on a nearby chair, preparing to switch into sandals before walking home. I looked over at my colleague nearby and saw… his face aghast, jaw scraping the ground.

My face turned hot, cheeks cherry-red. My feet, I thought, they must smell. As I was debating whether I should go fetch some air freshener, my colleague informed me that showing the bottom of your feet is offensive in Indian culture.

Just as easily as you can alienate someone with a gesture, an improper greeting is the worst way to make a first impression.

Not scared yet? There’s someplace where you should sniff, instead of shake, and another where you should applaud before saying hello. Check out this international greeting guide, for when a handshake just won’t do!

International Greeting Guide

If you’re still looking to improve your international etiquette, check out these five fun facts:

  1. In Japan, a thumb held up alone means five.
  2. The A-OK sign (thumb and forefinger connected) is obscene in Brazil or Turkey.
  3. The deeper you bow in Japan, the more reverent the gesture.
  4. In Germany and Austria, a forefinger held up means two, not one.
  5. In Asian culture, when you cross your chopsticks over your bowl, it usually indicates you’re done feasting.
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