Greet Like a Local: Deciphering the Complicated Culture of Greetings

Published 2012-03-28 15:36:42

Hug or handshake? The kiss? The double kiss? The triple kiss?

Saying "hello" is more complicated than just knowing the language. So much of communication is non-verbal, greetings across cultures requires you to learn to speak another language with your actions. Greetings are determined by social etiquette, relationship of the people, and geographic location.

Tips on Being Polite

If you approach situations in a positive spirit and are flexible, rarely will you go wrong in a greeting. But it never hurts to do some research on the customs and traditions of an area you are visiting. EasyExpat's City Guides can help prepare you for what to expect. And if you are unsure, just follow the lead of the person you are meeting.

"Hello" in 18 Languages

  • Afrikaans - Hallo (pronounced "Hu-llo" ) , Haai (pronounced "Hi" ) , Goeie môre (pronounced "HWEE-uh MOR-uh" ) for "good morning", and Goeie dag (pronounced "HWEE-uh dag" )
  • Arabic - As-salam 'alaykum or Marhaba
  • Chinese - Ni Hao (Mandarin)
  • Czech - Ahoj (pronounced "ahoy" )
  • English - Hello, hi, hey, How do you do?, Hiya
  • French - Salut (informal; pronounced with a silent "t" ) , Bonjour (formal, for daytime use), Bonsoir (good evening) ; Bonne nuit (good night)
  • German - Hallo or Tag (informal), Guten Tag (formal; pronounced "gootan taag" )
  • Greek - Yassou (informal, pronounced "YAH-soo" ), Kalimera (pronounced "kah-lee-MARE-ah"; for daytime use) and Kalomesimeri (pronounced "kah-lo-messy-mary" )
  • Hebrew - Shalom (means "hello", "goodbye" and "peace" )
  • Italian - Ciáo (informal; pronounced "chow"; also means "goodbye" )
  • Japanese - Konnichiwa (pronounced "Kon-ee-chee-wa"; daytime or afternoon) Ohayoou gozaimasu (pronounced "o-ha-yo"; good morning), Konbanwa (pronounced "kong-ban-wa"; evening)
  • Korean - Ahn nyeong ha se yo (formal), An-nyung (informal)
  • Portuguese - Olá (informal; pronounced "oh-LAH" )
  • Russian - Privet (informal; pronounced "pree-vyet" ), Zdravstvuyte (formal; pronounced "ZDRA-stvooy-tyeh" )
  • Spanish - Hola (pronounced with a silent 'h', "o-la" )
  • Swahili - Jambo (pronounced "JAM-bo" )
  • Thai - Sawa dee-ka (said by a female), Sawa dee-krap (said by a male)
  • Vietnamese - Xin cháo (pronounced "sin CHOW" )

For more greetings, sayings, and phrases, refer to the Wikitravel Phrasebook.


Formal: Shake hands and smile
Informal: Cheek Kiss 2 times with handshake

In Africa, over 800 languages are spoken making a standard greeting difficult to establish. Greetings are generally leisurely as people discuss happenings and exchange pleasantries.

When dealing with foreigners, most Africans shake hands while maintaining eye contact and smiling. To be polite, learn how to say "hello" in the local language. Note that some women do not shake hands and merely nod their head, so it is best to wait for a woman to extend her hand.


People meeting each other, asking directions, or seeing someone they know must greet the person before getting down to business. The official language of Botswana is English, but making the effort to say "hello" ("Dumela rra"/"Dumela mma " sir/madam) in Setswana is especially respected.

When introduced to someone, it is common to shake hands. This custom is slightly different in that is three-part handshake used in southern Africa.

  1. Take each other's right hand, as for a normal handshake, and shake once, up and down.
  2. While still holding hands, link thumbs and change the grip by both people raising their hands, until their arms make a right-angle. Each then grasps the other person's thumb and the top of their hand firmly.
  3. Then this is swiftly relaxed, with thumbs still interlinked, and the hands are dropped back into one last normal 'shake'.


Remember that many people are Muslim in Egypt meaning that greetings are based on both class, gender, and the religion of the person. Handshakes are most common among individuals of the same sex upon meeting. These are paired with a smile and direct eye contact.

Once people are familiar with each other, it is customary to exchange kisses on alternate cheeks, usually three times. This is only for same sex.


Shaking hands happens every time you see someone you know or meet someone new, even when seeing the same colleagues you see everyday or going into a shopkeeper's store. If a Moroccan has full or dirty hands, the other person will grasp his/her wrist instead of the hand. After shaking hands, touching the right hand to the heart is a sign of respect.

Bisous à la française (a kiss on each cheek) or hugs are commonly exchanged between same-sex friends. Same-sex friends may also walk around holding hands. Romantic couples, even married couples, rarely touch in public. Male/female contact in public is strictly limited to hand-shaking.

In Arabic-speaking countries, there is great importance placed on extended greetings. It is impolite to just say "hi" and keep walking. Even a casual exchange should include an inquiry about a person's family, children, and health. These quick-fire conversations are ended when when one or both parties says "Alhamdulillah" which basically means "praise God".

South Africa

Even more than other African nations, South Africa offers a kaleidoscope of people, cultures, and appropriate ways to greet one another. In dealing with foreigners, the default approach is to shake hands. Some women may not shake hands and merely nod their head. A simple nod back accompanied with a smile is all that is required.

People who are greeting each other informally chat about one another's health, family, leisure time or sport. Informal greetings among family and close friends includes hugs and kisses.


Formal: Verbal with a Bow (handshake for Westerners with slight head bow)
Informal: Bow/handshake, hugs only for family and close friends

In parts of Central, South, and East Asia (and in predominantly Buddhist or Hindu cultures) cheek-kissing is largely uncommon and may be considered offensive. If greeting an Asian for the first time, do not initiate physical contact as it could make the other person uncomfortable. Hugs are usually reserved for family members and close friends. However, many Asians are accustomed to accepting a handshake when dealing with Westerners.

Bowing is also customary among many Asian cultures. If you feel unsure of what is proper, it is best to offer a slight bow of the head when responding to a proffered handshake.

In formal situations, a business card should be exchanged with the writing on the card facing the person and it should be given with two hands.


Chinese tend to be conservative in their physical contact. On meeting someone for the first time, nod your heads and smile or shake hands (in formal situations). When introduced to a Chinese group, they may greet you with applause. You may nod or applaud back.

Social hierarchy is very important and the senior, oldest person should be greeted first. During group introductions, line up according to seniority with the senior person at the head of the line. Use family names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your Chinese host or colleagues to use their given names.


In India, greetings are indicators of the relative position of individuals in the social hierarchy. The culture is hierarchical so greet the eldest or most senior person first. Here are some examples in Hindi.

Greeting an older male/female: "How are you?"
Kaise hain aap / Kaisi hain aap (aap is respectful "you" )

Greeting an equal man (Kaisa changes to Kaisi for female):
Kaise hain aap (formal) / Kaise ho tum (semi-formal) / Kaisa hai tu (informal)

Greeting someone younger:
Kaise ho tum (formal) / Kaisa hai tu (informal)

Shaking hands is common, especially in the large cities among the educated class who are familiar with westerners. Men may shake hands with other men and women may shake hands with other women; however there are seldom handshakes between men and women because of religious beliefs. If you are uncertain, wait for them to extend their hand.

Close friends of the same sex can hug. Older relatives may also hug younger children. Grandparents are not to be hugged, you are supposed to touch their feet and receive blessings. Kissing is not only not expected, it is generally unacceptable.


Japanese customs and etiquette are especially complex. Bowing is common, though many people are accustomed to Westerners and handshakes. There are three types of bows:

  • Informal bows: made at about a 15 degree angle
  • Formal bows: made at about a 30 degree angle
  • Very formal bows: made at an even deeper angle


The most common greeting is a slight bow and handshake (right hand in one or both hands). This may differ slightly depending on the sexes.

Women greeting women: Women will bow to one another, no handshakes.
Women greeting men: Women usually nod slightly and will usually not shake hands with men.
Men greeting men: Bow slightly and shake hands to greet each other


Greetings in Malaysia often depend upon the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. You should greet people with both hands touching the other person's hands, then bring them back to the breast. However, most Malays are aware of Western greetings and will accept a handshake. Malay women may not want to shake hands with men, and men may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart.


Thai people usually greet each other with the word "Sawadee" and put their palms together in a prayer-like gesture and bow slightly. This is called wai. It is customary for the younger or lower in status to begin the greeting.


English greetings of "Hi" or "Hello" are common, though trying to speak Tagalog and saying "Kumusta kayo?" (Plural form of "How are you?"; pronounced "kah-mus-ta ka-yo" ) is impressive. If you're talking to someone who is older or has a higher position, add po and opo. It is usually mentioned at the end of a sentence, like in "Salamat po" (Thank you) or substitute "opo" for "oo" (yes).

Cheek kissing is also a common informal greeting in the Philippines. Called a beso, (Spanish for "kiss" ) , it is usually made once (right cheek to right cheek), either between two women, or between a woman and a man. Among the upper classes, it is a common greeting among adults who are friends. However, the rest of the population would only cheek kiss a relative.


When at a social occasion or another event with many people, it is appropriate to shake hands with everyone there. This may be accompanied by a bow. To be courteous, a Singaporean may not have direct eye contact with the person they are greeting, but instead look down. This is a sign of respect for those that are older or of higher rank. Instead of a typical greeting of "How are you", Singaporeans will usually greet by saying "Where are you going?" or "Have you eaten?"


Formal: Shake hands
Informal: Short Hug

Australians tend to be very casual and few greetings are formal. A handshake and a smile are most common with direct eye contact. Verbal greetings include the typically Australian "G'day". Aussies prefer to use first names, even at the initial meeting. Nicknames are also common among friends. However, don't forget that Australia is a diverse place with a wide range of social customs.


Greetings vary greatly between countries, but there is a general division between Western and Southern Europe.

Western Europe - Greetings tend to be less phyical with a verbal greeting sufficient in many cases. Cheek kissing tends to only happen between women, or between a man and a women.

Formal: Handshake
Informal: Short Hug and/or cheek kiss

Southern Europe - Cheek kissing is a standard greeting throughout Southern Europe between friends or acquaintances, but less common in professional settings. Most of the time, men and women would kiss and women will kiss women. Men kissing men varies depending on the country, relationship and occasion.

Formal: Handshake, cheek kiss if one person is a women
Informal: 2 cheek kiss


Greetings entail a degree of formality. A brief handshake is the common greeting among people who do not know each other. Once a relationship is developed, three kisses on the cheek may replace the handshake. Rather than kissing the cheek itself, most people kiss the air by the cheek. Most men do not kiss each other unless they are related.


Greeks are generally very demonstrative and affectionate. Informally, back-slapping takes the place of shaking hands in many greetings. Good friends are most likely to embrace and kiss.

Cheek kissing is very common in some places, and not at all in some regions. A formal cheek kisses is one on each cheek and may be appropriate at an event such as a wedding.
In Athens, men often kiss women and women kiss other women on the cheek when meeting or departing. It is uncommon between strangers of any sex.
In Crete, it is common to offer a cheek kiss between a man and a woman who are friends. Men may offer a cheek kiss to another man if they are very close relatives.


Greetings in Italy tend to be enthusiastic, yet retain a degree of formality. Between strangers, a handshake with direct eye contact is expected.

For friends or acquaintances, an air-kiss on both cheeks is given, usually starting with the left. This custom is less common among men, but not unheard of.


French Greetings, or Les Salutations, relies on faire la bise, or kiss. A French joke states that you may recognize the city you are in by counting the number of cheek kisses! Two kisses are most common in France, but in Provence three kisses are given and in Nantes four are exchanged. On the other side, in Finistère and Deux-Sèvres one kiss is preferred. If you are unsure, just hold still and let the French person initiate.

If two people do not wish to offer faire la bise as a greeting, they shake hands.


Greetings behave more formally than many other European nations. A quick, firm handshake is the traditional greeting, even among friends (especially male). Titles are very important and denote respect. You should use a person's title and surname until invited to use their first name. In a work setting, cheek kissing is discouraged.

Among friends, hugs and a cheek kiss may be exchanged. The people of the south can be more friendly, although people in big cities in the north like Berlin and Hamburg may adopt a cheek kiss more quickly than others. Usually, 2 cheek kisses will be given.


Cheek kissing is a common greeting between relatives and friends throughout the country, especially in the south. Generally speaking, women will kiss both women and men, while men will kiss women but refrain from kissing other men. There are usually 3 kisses starting on the left cheek in the French-speaking regions of Belgium, where there may be only 1 in the north. If there is no kiss, people shake hands.


The typical greeting is a firm handshake while maintaining direct eye contact. Remember to remove your gloves before shaking hands. Initial greetings may come across formal and a bit unfriendly. People usually do not smile, and use first names less than some other palces. 

Female friends offer three kisses on the cheek, starting with the left. Male friends may pat each other on the back and hug.


Verbal greetings in Spain are frequent, even if just acknowledging people you come across. When you enter an elevator or enter an office, greet the occupants with "Hola" or "Buenos días/tardes". You should also say goodbye upon exit.

When meeting someone, be prepared to shake hands and exchange a kiss on each cheek (starting with the right cheek). This is known as dos besos, literally "two kisses". Men may prefer a quick embrace and/or backslap.


The British tend to be hands off, preferring verbal greetings and/or a smile, or just a hand shake. Though eye contact is expected, it should not be prolonged. In formal situations, be sure to use titles and surnames until invited to be less formal. Also be sure to respect the hierarchy by introducing a younger person to an older person or a person of lower status to a person of higher status. When two people are of similar age and rank, introduce the one you know better to the other person.

Cheek kissing is acceptable between parents and children, family members (though not often between two adult males), couples, two female friends or a male friend and a female friend. Cheek kissing is associated with the middle and upper classes.

Middle East

Formal: Handshake
Informal: Cheek Kiss between same sex

Shaking hands is common, and may happen every time you encounter and leave someone - even if that is multiple times in one day. Middle Easterners often greet each other with a number of ritual phrases and fixed responses. This intricate social dance is required and to do without would be rude. Expect long handshakes, extended eye contact, and less personal space. Note - however- that physical contact between the opposite sex in public is considered almost obscene.

Cheek kissing is common in the Arab world between friends and relatives, even among males. Different from other regions, cheek kissing between a male and female is usually considered inappropriate, unless within the same family. As many Middle Easterners are Muslims, it is part of the culture to avoid body contact with the opposite sex.

When people of the middle east greet each other, they say "Salam alaykum" ("Peace be upon you" ), to which the reply is "Wa alaykum as-salam" ("And upon you be peace" ) .


Lebanon is more informal among Arab countries. Cheek kissing is a common greeting between unrelated males and females. In Lebanon, the typical number of kisses is three, starting with the left cheek.


Upon meeting, people usually shake hands firmly. Male to male cheek kissing is considered normal in almost every occasion, but very rarely for men who are introduced for the first time. Some men hit each others head on the side instead of cheek kissing. Cheek kissing between women is also very common, but it is also very rare for women who are introduced for the first time. A man and a woman would usually not offer a cheek kiss unless they are very good friends or depending on their social circle. People usually kiss each other twice. In addition, elders are always respected by kissing their right hand then placing the forehead onto the hand.

North America

Formal: Handshake
Informal: Short Hug


Americans tend to be more casual than other areas of the world, but a handshake is common in a formal situation or upon first meeting. Once a relationship is established, a hug may replace this. This is more common between women, or a women and a man than two men. The hug is usually short, with only upper-body contact. All greetings are usually paired with a smile.

Though more uncommon, a cheek kiss is most often practiced in the cities versus the countryside, or among relatives rather than friends. Usually this is restrained to a single kiss in the air by the cheek.

Areas with a high immigrant population may adhere to customs from their native country. For example, in Miami, Florida the Cuban/Latin American population has led to kissing hello on the cheek becoming the social norm.


Canada generally follows the same norms as the United States, but Quebec is unusual. It has adopted a more European style in general. Cheek kissing is referred to as "un bec". People usually kiss once on each cheek.


Exchanging proper greetings is considered very important in Mexican cultural circles. Handshakes are the standard greeting and should be extended before asking a question or making a request. You are also expected to address all members of a group individually as greeting a group of people in the collective sense is viewed as being rude. Any attempt to use Spanish will be appreciated.

When greeting in social situations, women may pat each other on the right forearm or shoulder, rather than shake hands. They may also exchange one cheek kiss. Men shake hands until they know someone well. Then they may move to hugs and back slapping.

South America

Formal: Cheek kiss with a Handshake
Informal: Cheek kiss with a Hug

In Latin America, cheek kissing is a universal form of greeting between a man and a woman or two women. It is not necessary to know a person well or be intimate with them to kiss them on the cheek. A cheek kiss can be accompanied by a hug, or in more formal occasions a handshake. However, cheek-kissing between two men can be interpreted as a sign of homosexuality among the most conservative countries.


Chileans are very warm people that quickly move beyond formalities. Upon meeting, men will usually shake hands. A handshake, a warm hug and one kiss on the right cheek are common greetings among friends. It is not uncommon between male friends to kiss as a greeting or congratulations. This varies depending on the region, occasion and on the family. Women generally kiss once, on the right cheek.


In Argentina, people are physical and friendly. In formal situations, people will shake hands at first, and then give a cheek kiss in later meetings. Friends usually exchange one peck on the check for friends and family and even acquaintances. People often hug, kiss and hold hands.


Brazilians are well-known for their warm, effusive greetings. Shaking hands is only for formal situations. Male friends generally offer a light hug. Women will usually give a cheek kiss with the number depending on the region.
In Brasilia, two kisses
In São Paulo or Rio, one kiss


Though far from unfriendly, Uruguayans are will not greet strangers when passing on the street. Greeting or smiling at a stranger may be misunderstood. Handshakes are for introductions, and male friends will pat each other on the back when getting, with women offering a single cheek kiss.


Have some personal insight, experience, or correction to share? Leave your comments below!

Find out more about international greetings on our pinterest board: Expat Greetings 


In our series of "____ Like a Local", we provide tips to avoid the worst faux pas and an overview of standards around the world. (For more tips on fitting in, read Eat Like A Local, Talk Like a Local, Tip Like a Local, Stay Healthy Like a Local, and Date Like A Local).  



Author: EasyExpat
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