One thing I noticed is that the customs of saying hello is different in every country. It’s quite fascinating actually.
I am accustomed with the Romanian/Hungarian way where on the first meeting, as we are being introduced to each other, I shake hands with the other person. After that I, as a woman, just say “Salut” or “Ciao” (“Hello”) every time I meet this person, while men usually shake hands. If the situation is more formal, then the appropriate greeting is “Bună ziua” (“Good day”) followed by a firm handshake between men. Close friends and family members greet each other by hugging and kissing on both cheeks but this is only the case when one or both of them are women. Two men doing this is seen as inappropriate. Kids are thought to be polite and the polite way is to say “Sărut mâna” (“I kiss your hand”). This greeting is often used by older men to women to show their respect.
I haven’t found any big differences in the Hungarian culture. Friends say “Szia” (“Hello”), while kids greet adults or older men greet women by saying “Csókolom” (“I kiss your hand”).
I have been living in Germany since almost four years and it’s still hard for me to get used to the customs here. Regardless if the two persons who meet are men or women, whether they’re just being introduced or have known each other already, or if it’s a social or business meeting, they usually say “Hallo” and shake hands. The handshake is the most common way of greeting in Germany.
Depending which time of the day is, the proper thing to say is “Guten Morgen” (“Good morning”), “Guten Tag” (“Good day”) or “Guten Abend” (“Good evening”). When colleagues meet each other around noon, they say “Mahlzeit” which translated word by word means “Time for meal” but can be interpreted as “Enjoy your meal”. The older generation greets with “Grüß Gott!”. I have observed these customs in Bavaria but other regions have their own ways.
So like I said before, also in the business world people shake hands every time they meet, regardless of gender or if it’s the first meeting or not. This is not the case for colleagues working in the same office.
I obviously know the theory but what about putting this to practice? Well, I’ve just ran into some customers on the hallway and said “Hallo”, like I usually do. But then one of them extended his hand and it’s very rude not to accept it, even if this not my way of greeting men, so we had to of course shake hands. The other client had his eyes on me waiting for his turn but we were discussing meanwhile about work so I hesitated because I wasn’t sure if it’s already too late. Better safe than sorry, right? But he finally approached me by coming closer and stretching out his hand.
It’s very important to examine the body language because certain signals show what is expected of us, like a hand stretched out or a persistent eye contact. Even if we don’t initiate the greeting, we can familiarize ourselves with the greeting habit and return the greeting when it is given to us.
Nevertheless it’s quite easy to get it wrong and, even well-educated people familiar with the local custom, can mess up involuntarily and unconsciously sometimes. But there’s always room for improvement and we can only hope that we’re not seen as unfriendly or impolite on the occasions when we do fail.