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What is Culture?

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

All culture groups have formulas for greeting.  Greeting patterns are not universal, but vary with the culture.   Greetings are a part of Social Culture.  

The way idividuals relate to each other is determined by very complex rules of behaviour.   These are learned at an early age and are "intuitive" for the native to that culture or society.  Often forms of greeting vary extensively, a different form for each type or status of person.  

Greetings involve more than just words.  Greeting patterns involve touching, or movement, like waving or bowing.  Each society gives significance to various aspects of human interaction, and handles them in various ways.  This results in some similar patterns across cultures, but also some significant differences.  Every culture has an appropriate range of words and motions for each type of social event.

Shaking Hands
Many cultures shake hands upon greeting.  But you find extreme variations on how people shake.   In some cultures, one may shake thehand of only someone of the same sex.  There may be different forms of shake foe men with women or adults with children.

Greetings are much more extended in African cultures and many cultures around the world.   Greetings are very important, and everyone has time for an extended greeting.   A person who will not stop and exchange several greetings is considered unfriendly, impolite, ignorant or even dangerous (untrustworthy).

Everyone shakes hands all the time.   Each time you meet someone during the day you might shake their hand, except for people who work together and are with each other all the time.  Usually handshake greetings are longer and more complex.

Everyone shakes, every age with every other age, in most societies.  There are some variations, but in general, every greeting includes some form of handshaking.  It would seem extremely excessive to most Americans.  American handshakes have diminished considerably over the last two generations.

Both hands
Often the handshake will use both hands, but you would never grasp the other person's hand with your second hand, which might be considered too familiar or aggressive, but you would grasp your own to indicate greater honor, joy at seeing the person or other strong positive feeling.

A Kikuyu in Central Kenya, for instance, would commonly hold their right forearm with the left hand, or place the fingers of the left hand lightly on their own forearm, as they shake the hand of the other person.  This is common with many peoples in Eastern and Southern Africa.

They might pump the arms up and down one to maybe three times, or just down once firmly.  They might hold the hand for an extended period, then shake again one or more times.

Often there is an extended shake ritual, varying somewhat by tribe.  I remember learning the 3-way Kikuyu greeting, which I later found used by many peoples across Africa.

This is actually similar to one variation of an African-American greeting, which has also spread to general popular American culture.  The two people clasp hands as normal, then grasp across the hand upward, the forward again.  Among the Kikuyu, this might extend to a release by sliding the palms together as they come apart.

Some Kikuyus additionally add a finger snap at the end.  But I found an added feature among some of my Kiujyu friends, which adds a snap of the fingers at the end.  Is this a universal Kikuyu variation or only regional?  Kikuyu may also shake with a single clasp, but add the finger snap.

The extensive handshaking pattern I have observed occurs especially among the Bantu peoples, who are the most numerous in African south of the Sahara.  For some African cultures, I have found one interesting aspect.  When former colleagues or students who meet again after some time apart, the the longer the two friends have been apart, the longer the handshaking ritual continues.

They may hold the handshake position for a long time at the first greeting, as they begin their conversation, then will shake hands again over and over all during the extended greeting conversation, which may continue through a visit of 10-15 minutes, even if they meet out on the street.

But the Maasai do not grasp hands, but just touch palms, or touch and slide all the way off.   An elder (adult) greet a child or teen by placing the palm of the right hand lightly on the head of the younger (one time only, not patting).  Older men may greet younger adult women this way also, although the pattern tends to change after the young women is either married or has her first child.   This also varies with each village or each of the 10 tribes of the Maasai.

In that regard, there is a special blessing greeting of older people, particularly older women to younger people of either sex.   The older person will spit into their right palm, then shake your hand, passing the goodness of their spirit in the saliva as a blessing to you.

This is rather common, though passing out of practice as the Maasai culture changes in contact with other African cultures that do not follow this practice.   This does occur in other peoples in other parts of the world, however.

Also an older, less common blessing among the Maasai is to spit in the face or on the hair of the younger person.   This is not very common any more, although I remember one time when a very old woman did this to me even though I was an "elder" and male.   This is a great honor, and one receives that with a slight bow and "obeisance" with one or both hands together raised in front of the chest.

Some peoples do not touch hands at all.  They clap lightly, rather than shaking.  Some who do this are the Shona of Zimbabwe and the Chewa and Nsenga in Zambia.  These are just the areas I know of personally.

Thais, I understand, never touch a person's head, even a child.  But the Maasai always greet a child by touching the head.  While Europeans may kiss or hug, some cultures reserve such overt gestures for personal and private situations.

Maasai reserve kissing for the relationship between mother and baby.  Many African societies consider public hugging or even hand-holding as obscene gestures!

Prayer, and How
You are probably familiar with the Indian Hindu prayer-form greeting, two hands held together.  Thais have a similar greeting called a wai, accompanied by a slight bow of the head, or even the body.  The higher you hold your hands, the more respect you show.

And Americans will be familiar with the raised right palm of American Indians.  (Whether they really said "How" while greeting with the palm is probably a matter of legend more than fact.)

The European hand wave is similar, and is almost universal for a greeting across a distance.  But in Kenya there is a two-handed wave, like you are flagging down a car in an emergency.  Or the American gesture with your hands in front of your chest, maybe moving slightly up and down, like "It's OK," or "Iím not a threat."


This article contains material originally published in an article titled "Gestures" in the series "What is Culture?" in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, October 1993
This new article posted 05 April 2005
Last edited 16 February 2006
See the related new article "Gestures"

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2005
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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