Shaking Hands – Culture Differences

Here in Kazakhstan there is a lot of hand shaking going on.  The culture is very friendly and you see many Kazakhs greet each other with a hand shake.  A group of guys will be standing together and another person shows up, and the new comer will go around and shake everone’s hand.  Many times one of the Kazakh engineers in my group will walk by me down the hall and they will reach out and shake my hand, as a friendly greeting.  This happens several times each day.

In the US, hand shaking is more formal.  In the Western culture hand shaking is typically reserved for an introduction, or maybe sealing a deal or agreement.  We were taught (by our Fathers) to have a firm handshake (the firmer the better) and look the other person in the eye.  I reflect that I drilled my own sons that when they meet someone they should deliver a very strong handshake, look them in the eye, and say “My name is Andrew (for example), it is nice to meet you.”  I had another parent tell me one of my son’s is a great kid, based upon his first introduction where Zack had a very firm handshake and looked this parent in the eye (which reinforces the adage “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”)  I took great pride in this feedback.

Recently I had a career discussion with one of the engineers in my group.  As he left my office I reached out and shook his hand.  Of course I demonstrated a firm handshake while his was noticibly less strong.  I reflected on this as I think very highly of this engineer – know he is a sharp and engaged individual.  This is when I tumbled to the realization that hand shaking is much more informal here in Kazakhstan – it is more a friendly greeting.  Kazakh’s do not use handshakes to impress others or indicate their “manliness.”  Instead of a wave or a nod like in the US, they instead greet each other with a shake.  But it is a light shake, not a firm “nice to meet you” shake.

So I have resolved to soften my handshaking in Kazakhstan – I’m in their culture not mine.  Maybe some day I can convince them to perform a knuckle bump (it’s more hygenic) but for now will just remind myself there is no need to impress, it’s only a friendly greeting.