If you’re a man, how would you greet another man? Probably just a shake of the hand, right?
How would you greet a woman? If you’re from the West, probably the same.
You’d offer your hand without a second thought. But, considering the different body contact norms across cultures, you shouldn’t assume sameness when it comes to greetings.
Sometimes, cross-cultural matters of gender are quite sensitive and, depending on the culture, even same-gender greetings may require some specific behaviors.
If you don’t want to do something taboo in your new culture, as a monkey, watch and learn. Or, better yet, prepare yourself beforehand by reading up on gender norms in this “guide to touching.”
Touching Across Genders
In certain cultures, particularly in traditional ones, touching when greeting is only acceptable when of the same gender.
Generally, same-gender contact (male-to-male and female-to female) is acceptable in many cultures. But what about male-to-female contact?
Physical contact between men and women in African countries and in Muslim majority countries is often seen as taboo.
Moreover, in traditional societies, PDA is unacceptable, and you’ll rarely see a man and a woman holding hands in public or greeting each other with physical contact.
In some regions, the latter is acceptable if the man and woman are family.
Left Hand/Right Hand
You should also consider which hand you greet someone with.
If you are left handed, and normally reach out to shake with your dominant hand, hold up a minute.
When in Africa or Muslim majority countries, many will consider this left-handed shake disrespectful, because the left hand is considered the “dirty” hand.
Because clean water for hand-washing isn’t always readily available in some regions, tasks in these cultures are separated between the left and right, with the left hand being responsible for dirty tasks…even cleaning oneself after using the toilet.
Not only that, but in Islam, a preference is always given to the right hand.
DohaNews states why:
“This follows in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, who favored his right hand for such actions [eating meals and greeting people].”
When Muslims perform wadu – purifying themselves ritually before prayer – they follow a sequence while washing, always prioritizing the right side.
“That cleanliness is a process. It starts with your intentions. In basic terms it’s, ‘I intend to make the ablution in preparation to stand in obedience before my Lord.’”
Being as the right hand is given such preference, touching or greeting someone with the left hand would be considered very rude, regardless of whether or not the right hand is busy at the time.
Knowledge of these differences in cross-gender contact and right hand/left hand norms can make the difference between success across cultures or a terrible first impression.