In many Western countries, a firm handshake with eye contact—or sometimes even a simple fist bump—is considered a warm, respectful greeting when meeting strangers. But in other places in the world … not so much. Taking the time to learn how locals meet and greet is the first step to making a meaningful connection no matter where you are. After all, there’s a certain kind of beauty in knowing that the common greeting varies so much depending on where you are.
From bumping noses in Qatar to bowing in Laos, here are 10 traditional greetings across different countries and cultures.
1. Stick out your tongue
Blame this greeting tradition on a really bad king. It all began with monks, who would stick out their tongues to show that they came in peace—and weren’t the reincarnation of a cruel 9th-century king named Lang Darma, who was known for having a black tongue. Needless to say, the greeting caught on.
2. Bump noses
Qatar, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates
Want to demonstrate that you view a potential business contact as a peer? Forget shaking hands; instead, bring your nose in for a few friendly taps. Just remember: Sniffing isn’t part of the equation.
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3. Air kiss on the cheek
France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Latin America, Ukraine, and Québec, Canada
In Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, São Paulo (Brazil) and Colombia, one air kiss is standard (either hovering over the right cheek or the left), whereas in Spain, Portugal, Paraguay, Italy, and cities like Paris and Québec, it’s two. In Russia and Ukraine, three is the norm, and in some parts of France, it’s up to four air kisses on alternating cheeks.
To add a little more confusion to the mix, there are some tricky gender and relationship rules, too. In all of the countries mentioned, women air kiss women, and in most of them, men air kiss women, but only in Argentina do men routinely brush cheeks with other men who aren’t relatives or romantic partners. In Belgium, a brief handshake is acceptable for people who don’t know each other well, but friends and family will often greet each other with three air kisses.
4. Rub noses (and sometimes foreheads)
If air kisses sound too intimate for your taste, try on a hongi for size. This pressing together of forehead and nose is what New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people call a “sharing of breath.” The greeting signifies the sacred welcoming of a visitor into Māori culture and is used at pōwhiri (Māori welcoming ceremonies)—although the honor requires an invitation and isn’t extended to everyone.
5. Shake hands
Botswana, China, Germany, Zambia, Rwanda, and the Middle East
A handshake isn’t as simple as it seems when you take it on the road. In Middle Eastern countries, for example, handshakes involve the right hand only, where the left hand is considered unclean. Visitors to China will want to lighten their grip, while folks introducing themselves to Germans should know to stop after one firm downward yank.
Not sure what to do if your hand is dirty or wet? There are country-specific procedures in place for that, too. In Morocco, touch the back of your right hand to the back of the other person’s right hand to complete the gesture. In Rwanda, grasp the other person’s wrist, unless, of course, their hands are muddy too, in which case, just touch wrists to convey “hello.” In Botswana, things are more complicated, even when hands are clean. The local handshake between two people entails multiple steps: Clasp right hands, shake up and down once, interlock thumbs, raise your arms to a right angle, grasp hands again, then release to a relaxed “shake” position before letting the other person’s hand go.
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6. Clap your hands
Zimbabwe and Mozambique
There’s something kind of nice about applause as part of a hello, isn’t there? In Zimbabwe, the clapping of hands comes after folks shake in a call and answer style—the first person claps once, and the second person twice, in response. Just be careful how you slap those palms together. Men clap with fingers and palms aligned, and women with their hands at an angle. In northern Mozambique, people also clap, but three times before they say “moni” (hello).
7. Put your hand on your heart
It’s very formal, but this traditional Malaysian greeting has a particularly lovely sentiment behind it. Take the opposite person’s hands lightly in yours. Then, release the other person’s hands and bring your own hands to your chest and nod slightly to symbolize goodwill and an open heart. It’s polite for the other person to return the gesture. Note that men should wait for local women to extend a hand, and if they don’t, a man should put a hand on his chest and give a slight nod.
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Cambodia, India, Nepal, Laos, Thailand, and Japan
When it comes to bowing, the question isn’t just when to take a bow, it’s how to do it. In India, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, and Thai cultures, press your palms together in an upward-pointing prayer position at heart level or higher, then bend your head slightly forward to take a bow. In India, and Nepal, you might hear the phrase namaste uttered during this greeting; the Sanskrit term translates to “bend or bow to you,” and is considered a sign of respect and gratitude.
In Thailand, taking a bow is referred to as the wai, and the higher you place your hands, the more respect you’re showing. In Japanese culture, on the other hand, a deeper bow indicates a higher level of respect than a slight bow (90 degrees is the max) and prayer hands aren’t used. Men bow with their hands at their sides, and women with their hands on their thighs. Among the younger generations, a head bow (like a nod, but more pronounced) is becoming the new norm.
9. Sniff faces
Greenland and Tuvalu (Oceania)
There’s nothing quite like the smell of someone you love . . . or someone you’ve just met. In Greenland, kunik, the Inuit tradition of placing your nose and upper lip against someone’s cheek or forehead and sniffing, is limited to very close relationships. But on the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, pressing cheeks together and taking a deep breath is a part of a traditional Polynesian welcome for visitors.
10. Greeting your elders before younger people
Asia and Africa
Throughout Asia and Africa, honoring your elders is a given. This means greeting seniors and older folks before younger people and always using culture-specific titles and terms of respect upon first meeting. In the Philippines, locals have a particularly unique way of showing their reverence. They take an older person’s hand and press it gently to their foreheads. In India, locals touch older people’s feet as a show of respect. In Liberia, as well as among members of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, young people drop to one or both knees to honor their elders.
What to do if you use the wrong traditional greeting
It happens: You’re new to a destination and you aren’t quite sure how to greet someone, so you default to whatever is acceptable at home. We’ve all been there. Sometimes simply going with the flow of what’s happening can be a safe bet—maybe someone is leaning in for a cheek kiss.
But the best thing to do is a bit of research before you even leave home. Or simply ask what’s customary. A simple “I’m new here and I want to make sure I’m respecting the local culture. Is there a proper way to greet people that I can use?” will go a long way.
This article originally appeared online in January 2018; it was updated on May 17, 2023, to include current information.
Chris Ciolli Chris is a Barcelona-based writer, translator and artist with Midwestern roots. She shares her adventures as a Missourian in the world at midwesternerabroad.com.