The focus of my blog is the English language, but the gestures we use are a strong form of communication in addition to the words we speak. As Americans we need to understand that gestures we take for granted may have very different and sometimes offensive meanings in other cultures. I know many of my readers live in other countries, and you, too, need to be aware that everyday gestures in your society might be interpreted differently around the world.
I was recently in Japan and quickly learned to slightly bow my head when acknowledging others. In Asia, kissing or touching strangers is a no-no, while in America we very often shake hands or even—OMG!—kiss: a quick peck on the cheek or the good-old-American air kiss.
In Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia, greet others by pressing your palms together and bowing. Be prepared in Tibet: you may well be greeted by others sticking their tongues out at you.
In New Zealand, if you meet Maoris, you might be greeted with a nose rub on the forehead. In Rio de Janeiro, three cheek kisses are obligatory, but in São Paulo, one kiss will do the trick. Same country, different custom.
French kissing in France is variously interpreted, and not as it is in the U.S: When visiting Nantes, expect four kisses, but only two in Toulouse, and a measly one in Brest. Be sure to make a quiet smooching sound, but do not let your lips touch another’s cheek.
Among strangers, a handshake is common in most of Northern Europe, while in Russia you might be brought to your knees by a more-than-firm handshake. In India, handshakes between men are quite the opposite: make them limp, and never shake hands with a member of the opposite sex. To greet an elder male in India, bend down and touch his feet.
Now you know.