Being able to greet people in other cultures, specifically Asian cultures, raises your chances of a great first impression. The experience can be amazing or it can be awkward. Should you bow, kiss, shake hands, hug, clap, come close, stay at a distance? Our intention to communicate warmth and respect comes across best when we take note of local practices. Here's how to offer proper greetings in 10 different Asian countries. Culture and tradition develop these customs, as well as neighboring countries’ influence and the degree of Western exposure. If you seek a low-contact alternative to the typical handshake, Asia had this sorted long ago.
Thailand - Cambodia - Laos - Myanmar
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar share a similar greeting: hands together at the chest in a prayer-like position and accompanied by a slight bow and hello. This greeting is reserved for first-time meetings, formal occasions, and showing reverence to elders, clergy, royalty and divinity. Unilaterally, for the most casual of greetings, hands remain at chest level with a slight bow. As the greeting is offered to those higher up the social ladder, the pressed hands move higher up the body and the bow gets deeper. For replying to those lower in the social ladder, often to children, a smile and nod are most common.
Thai call this greeting a “wai” and accompany it with the Thai word for hello, "sawasadee". One also uses a wai in other circumstances such as goodbyes, apologies and in thanks. The slight bow may be accompanied by bent knees if given by a woman. Meeting someone’s grandfather would warrant a more formal position — the hands with thumbs to the nose and fingertips to the forehead. The highest reverence reserved for monks or royalty lowers the head until thumbs are between the eyebrows and palms at chest.
In Cambodia, Khmer greet in a similar fashion with the “sampeah” and their formal hello, "jom reap suwa". The occasions to use it are wide, and always with the goal of communicating respect. When meeting someone for the first time, and especially if entering their home, sampeah. In restaurants and hotels, the staff will sampeah as a common welcome greeting. Guests need not return it. The highest position raises hands above the head for addressing divinity.
The Laotian call this greeting a “nop”. Their hands press together at the chest and hello is "sabai di". For women to women or men to women, fingertips position just below the chin. Children greet their elders with their pressed fingers touching their nose or forehead and a bow. In all greetings, the hands should not be raised above nose level. For deep respect, the head bows to meet the hand.
In Myanmar, the general greeting can be the same as above or, more traditionally, with both hands placed on the stomach. Some Burmese will greet with a handshake, supporting the elbow with the other hand. This is common within cities. For greeting monks, hands are held pressed together at face position accompanied with a bow. The common formal hello is "Min-ga-la-ba".
Taiwan and China
The majority of people in Taiwan came from mainland China around 1949, so they share many customs. The basic greeting in Taiwan is “Ni Hao”, literally you good. Towards elders, “Ni Hao Ma” is used and means are you good?, but essentially, how are you?. Often eyes are directed at the ground during the handshake as a sign of respect, greeting the oldest person first. In the business context, a greeting is often cemented by a handshake, especially if foreigners are involved. However, between Taiwanese, “Ni Hao” and a slight bow of the head is equally as acceptable. There is a traditional no-contact way to say thank you though. Clench your left fist and then wrap your right palm around it – and then mouth the words “Xie Xie” (thank you).
In China, a positive response is placed on good eye contact and a smile. Limp and potentially long handshakes are a sign of humility and respect. An occasional light bow or even clapping may be sent your way and it’s good to return accordingly. For a first-time meeting, one greets with "Ni Hao". For casual acquaintances, people use a number of rhetorical questions such as "Zui Jin Ru He" (how are you doing recently?) or "Qu Na'er" (where are you going?). In these ways, their greetings are very similar to Western. Bowing happens infrequently and usually to show deep respect to an elder or for ancestors on special holidays. The bow includes the fist of the right hand, cupped in the left hand, and held at stomach level.
“Ayubowan” (ආයුබෝවන්) pronounced ah-you-bo-wan, literally means wishing you long life. Say this with a gesture of your hands clasped together under the chin and a slight bow. Akesh, on our Grasshopper team in Sri Lanka, demonstrates. Used for millennia, this greeting encompasses more than just the literal meaning. By saying “Ayubowan” Sri Lankans wish each other prosperity and happiness: May you be well in your life.
Handshakes grow increasingly more common in Mongolia. Otherwise, it’s simply a spoken greeting. Mongolians speak three main phrases for either formal or informal situations. The first is "Saim bain-oo" which translates to are you good?. To greet two or more people, say "Saim baitsgaa-noo", or hello everyone. The last, "Sai-noo", shortens the previous greetings to an informal hi. This greeting is appropriate for friends, close acquaintances or people of the same age and younger. As is common throughout Asia, custom reserves formal greetings for showing respect to elders. Mongolia holds a unique way to greet within these 10 Asian countries — the zolgokh. This traditional greeting presents a scarf (khadag), and is practiced on New Year's Day as well as in an ancient celebration called Tsagaan. For this greeting, the two people hold their arms out, and embrace each others arms holding the elbows. The younger person’s arms are on the bottom and a kiss on each cheek may follow.
Japanese mostly bow as greeting, ranging from a head nod to a full bow bent at the waste. Grasshopper's ground team, Reiko and Norman, demonstrate a new acquaintance bow. The bow can be accompanied by words and, like the western greetings, they focus on a particular time of day. Japanese most commonly use the following phrases. "Ohayō" (おはよう) and "Ohayō gozaimasu" (おはようございます) mean good morning. You can add the second part of this phrase, "Gozaimasu" (pronounced goh-zay-mass), to make it sound more polite, especially if meeting for the first time. “Konnichiwa” (こんにちは) translates to hello or good afternoon. This particular word is used for both casual and formal circumstances. Finally, “Konbanwa” (こんばんは) means good evening . Much of the younger generation simply waves.
India’s famous phrase “Namaste” (नमस्ते) comes from Sanskrit and sounds like “nuhm mus-teh”. The phrase literally means I bow to you. India retains countless cultures and denominations. Namaste stems from a particular cultural aspect of Hinduism which states that God resides in every one of us, and the greeting is a sign of respect. This recognizes the divine within the other person. Namaste is accompanied by a slight bow and pressing your hands together with fingers pointing upwards. In fact, people find it acceptable to use the gesture even without the spoken words.
Uzbekistan remains historically low in engagement with the west. As a result, it is one of a few from these 10 Asian countries that remain more traditional in how to greet. Men greet other men with their right hand on their chest and with a traditional Muslim greeting peace be upon you - "Assalomu Alaykum" or hello - "Salom". The senior man may or may not extend his hand for a handshake as well. Women greet men in the same way and generally keep a distance. However, they greet each other and children differently. Women place their right hand on the person’s left shoulder. Uzbeks observe these customs more strictly in rural areas. In the city, with more Russian influence, women may extend their hand to a man for a handshake.
Learning how to greet in these 10 different Asian countries shows respect to their culture and an interest in their daily life. However, rest assured the western style greetings are prevalent as well. Your hellos and hand waves will also be given in return, likely, with enthusiasm and a great big smile. Check out the video below that shows a casual glance into many greetings, Asian and Western. In Asia most locals are very tolerant of foreigners and take no offense at them being unfamiliar with local customs. Our cycle tours keep local engagement and cultural exposure a priority, so consider practicing your greetings with us! Best of luck on your next adventures.