Promise me you won’t be offended by this, OK? Humans are a lot like some other mammals in the animal kingdom that, in addition to vocalization, we all use body language (communicating nonverbally through gestures and movements) to greet each other. Other animals unrelated to humans also use body language to greet as well. For example, cats touch noses to say “hi” and dogs, as we know, often sniff each other when they first meet.
For most of us, the spoken word is the most important part of learning a new language. That’s what our italki teachers focus on because that’s what we really want to learn. Remember the first words you learned in your new language? They were probably something along the lines of “Hello, my name is ____. How are you?”
But each spoken language has it’s own body language, which can be very subtle. In fact, even native speakers may not be aware of it. And, just because a culture’s body language is different than yours, it does not mean it’s bad. It’s just different.
There are many books that you could read on human body language, but we’re going to look at two body-language rituals in a few countries which are especially related to greeting someone in your target language.
Please note that this article applies mostly to people travelling to or living in the country of their target language, and is based on the observations of foreigners who have lived in or toured the country of their second language. This discussion is not intended to be stereotypical, biased, or judgemental. In cases such as this, when talking about groups of people, we must consider that individuals will not always conform to the cultural standards of their home country.
Why care about body language?
Did you ever exchange greetings with someone who speaks your target language but think that something seemed a little strange? Perhaps he or she moved away from you as you addressed them, despite the fact that you rightfully thought that you were being friendly in your greeting.
Perhaps this person’s body language was saying something else, something like “It’s nice to meet you, but don’t get too close to me, because we’re really still strangers”. This is more likely to happen in countries like Britain and the United States, where personal space between people is very pronounced.
Most travellers or students, even those that are very proficient (skilled) in their new language, don’t pay attention to the spatial needs and gestures of native speakers. This can make a difference, however, in whether or not you are accepted into the culture. When this happens, we’re often disappointed in the culture and don’t understand why.
There’s more to this than disappointment, however. If you do something that seems to indicate that you find some else’s body language distasteful, you may inadvertently communicate something you really don’t want to. For example, if you back too far away from a person in Spain, where the people often stand close to each other when greeting, the person might automatically think you don’t like him or her.
Here, then, are some examples of “who does what” among different cultures in terms of body language and greetings.
The Spanish Kiss
First, let’s go back to Spain. I have taught groups of international students in many language schools. Every week, there would be a new class and at least one or two new Spanish students. I was amazed to watch two new Spanish students who had never met before do a double kiss, one on each cheek. This is very different than in the US or Britain, where people usually keep their distance when first greeting each other, even if there’s a handshake involved.
My first thought was that the Spanish were saying something nonverbally, along the lines of “I like you before I even know you”, or “We’re both Spanish and that’s enough to express affection”. The one exception is that men typically greet each other as they do in the US: with a handshake.
This makes sense when you know a little about the background Spanish culture. “The Spanish tend to stand or sit very close to other people when speaking and are not afraid to look directly into the other person’s eyes when speaking,” says Jordan Harner, a student who has lived abroad in Spain, writing in Spanish Conversational Customs.
The French Hug
According to foreigners who have lived in France for a while, the French have certain verbal and physical greeting traditions that can cause trouble if they’re broken.
Hugging, as you often see often in the US between good friends, is a “non, non”; if you’re not close family or friends, you don’t hug in France. If you do, it will make the French extremely uncomfortable. It’s like they’re saying, “Hey, this is much too intimate and I don’t like it”.
On the other hand, kissing on the cheek is the preferential way of greeting, along with saying, “Bonjour” (good day) or “Bonsoir” (good evening).
Kissing in France is common between friends, family, and acquaintances. This is for women only, while men shake hands with each other and only kiss women on the cheeks. Women also shake hands with strangers. But after that, you’re an acquaintance. Expect to be kissed on the cheek, and for the same to be expected of you.
But think about this: if kissing is awkward for you, remember that hugging is equally awkward for French people. That’s according to Benjamin Houy, author of 8 French Greeting Words That’ll Help You Sound Like a Local.
The German Handshake
“The German handshake is firm and brief, conveying confidence and reliability. Make sure yours is the same; a weak handshake will inspire insecurity,” according to Patrick Rarden of Doing Business in Germany.
In Germany, you are expected to shake hands with everyone in the room before a meeting. When you leave, you must shake hands with everyone in the room again. Assess who is the most senior person in the room and shake hands with him or her first. Make sure to maintain eye contact and never put your hands in your pockets while speaking.
If you do so, to a German this may seem like you’re saying “I’m quite insecure about what I’m talking about. So please don’t take me too seriously while I speak”. Germans like direct eye contact when speaking, so don’t divert your eyes too much during a conversation.
Also (and I don’t know why anyone would ever do this) don’t point your index finger toward your own head: the Germans take it as an insult!
The Arabian Nose Touch
This has got to be one of the more unusual body language traditions: many Arabs touch noses three times while shaking hands.
With men, personal space is almost nonexistent during greetings and regular conversation. They stand face-to-face and will be offended if you take a step back; this is, of course, very different than than the personal space practiced in Western cultures.
“Body Language takes on extra significance in Arab culture. The body language is distinctly different and must be learned in order to effectively reinforce the intended message, and perhaps more importantly to not give unintended insults,” according to Body Language in Arab Culture.
Everything changes when it comes to men and women, however. If you’re a male foreigner or student, do not stand close to or stare at a woman. And definitely don’t touch her!
In Arab countries men shake hands with their right hands only at the beginning and end of any visit, while close friends and colleagues kiss both cheeks upon meeting each other. To show respect during a greeting, place a hand on your heart along with a slight bow.
Japanese eye contact
Japanese eye contact is in direct opposition to that of the Germans: when you meet a Japanese individual, they will respond by looking away. Don’t worry, this is normal. In fact, direct eye contact is considered rude and aggressive in Japan. So “when approaching a Japanese individual, make very brief eye contact to [acknowledge] the individual, but then maintain appropriate eye level, such as the individual's neck,” writes Viet Hoang of Japanese Body Language and Gestures.
One of the most complicated body language components in the world is the Japanese bow. There are several different types, but let’s look at the most basic for greeting someone.
There are two different bows: standing and seated. Each has its own stance, its own degree of bending and its own placing of the hands and feet. All these differ, too, depending if whether you are a man or woman. Anyone planning to visit Japan would do well to learn about the Japanese art of bowing, which is a whole subject in itself.
These are just a few of the body languages “spoken” around the world. If you want to get some insight into what native-speakers mean when they greet you, then watch and “listen” to their body language along with their speech. Ask your italki teacher to teach you the body language associated with your target language, especially if he or she is a native speaker. And then, when you visit the country where your target language is spoken, you’ll not only have more confidence but also: the native-speakers themselves will be enchanted with your knowledge of their greeting customs.
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki teacher specializing in advanced language students. She is a writer and author of The Diary of an Expatriate (AUK, London). Visit her website Chocolate English.eu.