Maori Greeting Meghan Markle receives a "hongi"

Anthropology: Greeting Gestures From Around the World

This post unravels how greeting gestures are related to culture and why we greet in the first place. Keep reading to find out the various greeting gestures from around the world.

Why do people greet?

Greetings are an element of social interaction done in the presence of other people. It helps in establishing one’s presence, as it is expressed even before a conversation begins. This makes it a great tool to present oneself and show a willingness to interact with other people. They also show a level of respect and care towards the people we interact with. Therefore, encouraging and maintaining social relationships. The action of greeting someone comes from the natural human characteristic of wanting to belong and to be acknowledged.

Greetings generally include a verbal salutation accompanied by a gesture.

Relationship between Greetings and Emotions

Greetings become habits and are done without awareness but, in the event that someone has not been greeted, they sense a distance between themselves and the person they interact with. This leads them to feel hurt and ignored as they believe it was all deliberate. This causes unnecessary misunderstanding among people, further proving why belongingness and feeling acknowledged is one of the most basic human needs.

Factors influencing greetings and gestures

  • Age: Greetings will be modified according to age. Those elderly, younger or of the same age, will each have their own type of greeting. For example, the elderly receive more sincere and respectful greetings.
  • Gender: In many cultures, different types of greetings are reserved for different genders.
  • Relationships with people: Indicates whether the person you are interacting with is an acquaintance, a stranger, someone intimate or a superior. Usually, warmer greetings are usually reserved for the well-respected and those close to us.
  • Culture: Greetings tell where a person is from. This is explained in further detail below.

The link between greetings, languages, and culture

Greetings are often language and culture-specific. This is because the cultural background of a person would have their own mannerisms, display of politeness, behaviours, ways to acknowledge each other, belief systems, traditions, and perceptions.

Greetings within the same community of people show the ability to follow the social customs of that community, proving that the person indeed belongs to that community. These greetings would depend on their own philosophies, environments, and politics of where they learnt or acquired the culture.

The language that is spoken, therefore, reflects all that. Their languages would naturally contain relevant words and phrases of expression. For example, some languages have more words of politeness and salutation than others, which do not have direct translations in other languages.

This is why greetings, and therefore accompanying gestures, are intertwined with language and culture.

Types of Greetings

Greetings and accompanying gestures can be informal, formal, and can involve touching or maintaining a sense of personal space. These are formulated by dependent factors mentioned earlier.

Distant gestures could include hand waves, head nods, etc. while those with touch could include handshakes, hugs, kisses, etc. Touching as a form of greeting in many cultures represents emotional closeness, deep relationships, commitment, joy, acceptance, belongingness, and a sense of comfort among the members of the community.

Hugging is a form of greeting. Image Credit: ABC News
General greeting etiquette

Greetings to acquaintances do not require a conversation to follow, they could just be a way to notice someone you already know without further engagement.

Strangers normally refrain from greetings until introduced by a mutually known person or, until they express an appropriate level of interest in talking to someone else or, until absolutely necessary. This usually happens when someone needs help or when they intend to begin a conversation with another person.

Before verbal expression, body language, including gestures, communicate all of this. Therefore, along with voice quality and tone, gestures and behaviour are also crucial in presenting oneself.

A brief history of greetings

Greetings are a form of nonverbal communication. Since the beginning of mankind, it has been used as a tool for social interaction and attachment.

Rock art on cave walls, gestures and sounds were the initial forms of communication among the early humans. These have now evolved into complex systems of expression, including language, symbols, and art forms.

Early humans would hunt in groups and would often need to communicate with each other to strategize and find efficient solutions to hunt their food. This would be communicated using gestures, pitched sounds and grunting. They would also communicate to warn each other of signs of danger.

Importance of gestures

Gestures are a form of non-verbal communication that has been used since the beginning of humanity, as discussed above.

Just like verbal communication, these forms of movements using the face, shoulders, legs, hands, arms, and even feet, also convey messages and support speech. This makes them as important as using words.

In greetings, it enhances the way one presents themselves, making it more effective to establish a presence thence, a bond with others.

Facial expressions are a form of gesture. This expresses sincerity and the true intentions behind the meaning of one’s words, therefore, bridging the gap between words and feelings.

The more sincere the gestures, the more convincing they will be. This is because gestures provide a glimpse into the mind of the person speaking.

Once again, this depends, not only on the situation at hand but, also on our cultural background.

Importance of using greetings that mean the same thing to the person in front of you

With differing cultures, the meaning of gestures differs too. Gestures should thus have the same meaning as the people in front of you, to avoid an awkward and inappropriate situation.

Other times, depending on the greeting norm that a person is used to, they will have certain expectations of greetings.
If a person who is used to simple greetings such as handshakes and another person who is used to hugging people to greet them meet, there will be an instant clash of expectations. The former would be taken aback by the lack of personal space, while the latter would think the other person is cold.

It is therefore important to be aware of social behaviors and customs around the world. This is especially useful to avoid misunderstandings while meeting people of different nationalities.

As tourists, locals will not expect you to know the local customs. However, knowing the local greetings could go a long way. It is a gesture of goodwill and amity. Moreover, it shows your effort and willingness to learn and engage with the locals.

An inappropriate gesture of greeting, even unintentionally, could make a negative impression on yourself and people of your culture, race, ethnicity, or nationality, to the locals. This would also be the case if no effort is shown to engage with the local culture. It is because they come off as having poor manners. So, it is always advisable to have a basic idea of the different cultural codes in your destination of choice.

Greetings all over the world have evolved due to international influences and there are some universally accepted greeting gestures. One such gesture is the handshake.

The handshake is a widely accepted form of greeting gesture. It symbolizes goodwill, peace and, in some cases, agreement.

In a handshake, two people extend their hands to grasp and shake them. During the handshake, eye contact is maintained, and the individuals smile. Usually, the right hand is used for this gesture. It is interesting to note that there are certain nuances within the grip, speed and touch of a handshake that could completely change its original meaning.  For example, a tighter grip could express anger towards the recipient,  while maintaining the façade of an amicable relationship.

The handshake was first said to be used in the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations where people would shake their hands as a gesture of peace and to show that there were not carrying any weapons to harm their recipient. Artistic depictions of the handshake appear on historical artifacts throughout the world.

First Recorded Handshake
Art depicts a handshake between the 9th century BC Assyrian King and the King of Babylonian. This is said to be the first available record of a handshake. Image Credit: Reddit

Greeting gestures throughout the world


In France, it is common greeting etiquette between friends, close acquaintances, and family kiss on the cheeks or faire la bise to greet each other. This is where two people touch their cheeks and air kiss both cheeks, starting from the left. The lips do not actually touch the cheeks.

Cheek Kiss
Cheek kiss. Image Credit:

In formal settings and while meeting people for the first time, it is common to simply shake hands.


Spanish-speaking countries

In Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain and most Spanish-speaking South and Central American countries, the common way to greet is with a kiss or air kiss on the cheeks, just like the French. However, they start from the right side.

This greeting is used with close friends and relatives, between men and women, two women or two men from the same family.

While meeting others for the first time and in formal settings, a handshake is more appropriate, and nowadays another gesture of greeting among the younger generations, is the wave. To wave, show the palm of your hand, keep the fingers slightly apart and rock it side to side a couple of times for a few seconds.

The custom related to kissing on the cheek is apparently associated with Catholic culture and dates back to Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. There he stated to “salute one another with a holy kiss” referring to locking lips. This then became the standard way to greet among Catholics. Over time, this greeting evolved into today’s kiss on the cheeks.


It is common to shake hands with strangers and in formal settings and to kiss them on the cheeks or hug close friends and family like in most European countries. However, there also exists a traditional form of greeting. The hand-kiss. This was seen as a chivalrous gesture where the ladies would extend their arms, palms down, to the men and they would bow down to gently kiss the knuckles. This is the traditional way for men to greet women. This gesture shows devotion and respect towards the recipient.

Though it is seen as an old-fashioned style of greeting, it is still practised today.

Hand-kissing. Image Credit: Ronni Bennet via Time Goes By

Earlier, it also used to be practised as a form of greeting by the French, but over the years it has been associated with having romantic implications, more than a greeting. Therefore, it is only practised in appropriate settings there.

New Zealand

The Hongi is a traditional form of Maori greeting practised by the Maori in New Zealand.

To do a Hongi, two people press their noses and foreheads together. It is used as an everyday greeting for all ages and genders.

The objective of the Hongi is to share the breath of life, as they believe that the breath is connected to the Gods. According to Maori folklore, it is connected to the story of the creation of humankind, where the Gods moulded the first woman off of the earth. To give her life, God Tane breathed into her nostrils, and she came to life.

Maori Hongi
The Maori Hongi. Image Credit: Pinterest


Inuit here refers to the collection of various tribes indigenous to Alaska, Greenland and northern Canada living near the Arctic region.

They greet each other by practicing the Kunik, or more commonly known as the Eskimo kiss.

To practice kunik, two people rub their noses together as a form of greeting and gesture of affection between family. Many believe that it is a romantic gesture more than a greeting. However, it is quite the opposite.

It is so cold in those regions that everything except the nose and eyes is covered. So, to greet people and to stay warm, the Inuit adopted this form of greeting.

Inuit mother/grandmother expressing affection and greeting her child/grandchild with the Kunik. Image Credit: Daily Mail UK via Curious Historian


Common Kenyan culture has developed from the collection of cultural practices of the various local tribes. There, the most common gesture of greeting is to shake the right hand of another person. This handshake is accompanied by a touch on the elbow or forearm of the left hand when greeting elders and important people. This gesture is to show respect to them.


In Botswana, a universal handshake is the most common greeting gesture. To express sincerity and more respect, the second hand is placed on the side of the recipient’s hand during the handshake.

Botswana Handshake
Former Botswana President Ian Khama [to the left] shaking hands. Image Credit: INK Centre for Investigative Journalism
Some sources even say that Botswana has its own version of handshake with various steps. The first step is to shake the hand up and down once then, a thumb clasp is done. Here the fingers grip the top of the hand with both thumbs interlocked. From there, it goes back to a handshake thus completing the process.

Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East

The standard greeting is a handshake with a verbal salutation. As the norm is to maintain no physical contact with the opposite genders who are not part of the family, men and women often greet verbally and nod. It is only if the women extend their hands that both genders shake their hands.

There is, however, more physical contact between their own genders. Men kiss each other’s alternate cheeks 3 times and place their left hand on the recipient’s right shoulder. Men who are extremely close even touch their noses together, which is a symbol of loyalty and comfort. It is common for men in the Middle East to be close to each other without being romantically involved.

nose touch
Two men touching their noses as a form of greeting between close friends. Image Credit: Al Arabiya

Women close friends with other women also kiss each other’s alternate cheeks three times and hug. Though, they limit their affectionate greetings in public places or when in front of men.


The most common and formal type of greeting is joining the palms together and placing them near the chest and saying Namaste. It is a sign of devotion and respect towards others. The same gesture is made during worship and prayer in Hindu temples suggesting that there is a divine connection between the people greeting each other.

Though the gesture has its connections to the Hindu culture, people from almost all cultural backgrounds in India have adopted the Namaste.

The Indian Namaste. Image Credit: Pinterest


Bowing is a unique form of greeting most popular in Japan. People bow to each other in everyday life and in formal settings. To bow, hands are placed on the side, feet are joined together and slightly bend down with an inclination, facing the other person. The head and the eyes lower too. The bow only lasts for a couple of seconds and a 15-degree inclination is a standard maintained for how low one should bow. However, when greeting a superior such as a boss or, an important figure, bows are lower and last longer.

People often try to out-bow each other, as it is customary to bow as low or lower than the person in front.

Japanese Bow
The Japanese Bow. Image Credit: Samurai Tours

This gesture was introduced by the Chinese to Japan and, initially, it was only practiced by the nobility. Soon, with the warrior class adopting the custom, it also spread to the general public. Bowing is a sign of sincere respect and humility.

More recently, however, the younger generations have started waving to greet each other.


Wai is a form of Thai greeting where one places the palms together at the chest level and bows slightly facing another person. The gesture is accompanied by verbal salutations different for each gender. For example, the men say Sawadee-krab and the women say Sawadee-kah to greet people.

Wai Thailand
The Wai greeting. Image Credit: Koh Samui Guide

These were just some of the few greeting gestures that exist in the world. So, the next time you visit any of these places, you will know how to greet the locals there. Although a simple handshake will work in most places, a little effort and enthusiasm to communicate with locals their way will leave a lasting impression.

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