Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands?

Being aware of nonverbal cues when traveling is an eye opening exercise.

Certain expressions are surprisingly common, take for example any of the seven core facial expressions (happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, contempt, fear and surprise). Whether you are in the US, Europe or Africa, these emotions, when triggered, are most often expressed in similar ways.

Gestures and body postures however, tend to have cultural sensitivities which, when known, can greatly enhance your ability to connect more quickly with individuals in entirely different parts of the world.

I spent the past two weeks having conversations about philanthropy with individuals and families all over Asia. From Singapore to Seoul, I met with over 100 people and in each short meeting I was able to apply certain nonverbal techniques to help move our conversations along despite the limits of our verbal tongues.


The two main techniques I applied were awareness, both of my own physical presence and the physical presence of the individuals I was meeting with; and physical empathy (as I describe in this article). When paired appropriately, these two relatively simple techniques can allow for a deepening of trust, likability and rapport in very short periods of time. When your profession depends on making trusting and lasting relationships quickly, these techniques will serve you well.

Here are a couple of examples of adjustments you can make by applying these two techniques:

  • Active listening: involves an awareness and matching or eye contact norms and appropriate physical expressions or understanding or mis-understanding. Eye contact in Asia tends to be slightly reduced from what we might be used to in the US. Head nodding is also something you will want to apply in such a way that it doesn’t become excessive. Pay attention to whether your guests look you in the eye while you speak or if they lower their head to take in what you say and only occasionally look up to ascertain a presence of connection. Similarly, how frequently do your guests nod their heads, what is the speed of the nod (curt and short, slow and emphatic?) and the number of nods per expression of acquiescence? You want to make sure you are not being overly large with your movements, especially in Asian cultures where being overly expressive is viewed with caution and alarm. You want to make sure you are able to convey your intention in a way that is effective and respectful. Being aware of and able to apply these important physical cues will allow you to better convey your understanding, or disagreement depending on the situation.

  • Greetings: In the US, we shake hands. Depending on where you are in Asia, you will either bow, shake hands with a slightly longer time spent holding hands, or a combination of both. In Seoul, I found it very interesting that any hand shake is accompanied by a light touch of your opposite elbow with your free hand. In a symbol of support to the other person and greater connectivity (involving both hands in the greeting). Business cards and gifts are also a big part of the conversation exchange and both are given/received with both hands.

Being aware of and able to adjust your physicality in these simple but powerful ways allows the establishment of a solid baseline of communication which will then allow for a solid foundation upon which your relationship can begin to grow.

There are no better ways to gain perspective both on your own culture and the world around us than by traveling. I encourage you to pay close attention to nonverbal similarities and differences the next time you take a trip. If you need any particular guidance, or tips on becoming more aware of your own physicality, reach out to me directly - I am happy to help.

*Title borrowed from Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway’s book

Rachel Cossar