by Anna Post
This morning I heard a terrific piece on Vermont Public Radio by Bill Seamans on Meeting and Greeting, or shaking hands. An award-winning journalist and a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East, Mr. Seamans mused on whether President Obama should greet Arab officials visiting Washington, D.C., with a kiss on the cheek, as is customary in the Middle East, or with a classic American handshake.
This question gets to the heart of diplomacy: Do you make others welcome as though they were in their home, or do you pay respect to your own traditions and culture when on home turf? This question is considerate by nature, something near and dear to the heart of etiquette, so I think it's a wonderful one to ask. And it doesn't extend to just President Obama; I am frequently asked about greeting foreigners in business--do we bow, shake, hug, cheek-kiss--and if we kiss, is it once, twice, three times? And which side do we start on? We don't want to smack someone on the lips by accident and lose a deal before we've even sat down!
"I think that President Obama should play it safe and stick to the familiar handshake so as not to accidentally offend any sensitivities," Mr. Seamans said. I like this solution, for exactly that reason. Go with the handshake; after all, that's our custom and it's what is expected here. When visiting another culture, I'd say the same is true: know what may be expected of you there to show respect for entering into their cultural territory. Basically, it's the redux of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".
If you'd like to add both kinds of greetings, say a bow and then a handshake, that's great too--now all the bases are covered. (Be sure you know your visitors, though; don't assume that all Asians bow and all Europeans kiss.) When going for both greetings, start with the least intimate contact and move toward the more intimate one. So, bow then shake then hug then kiss. As in most things (meeting new bosses, a significant other's parents), it's easiest to start off formally and then move to the informal than it is to go in the other direction. The whole idea of building a relationship, a dialog, with someone is to become more familiar with them; our actions should mimic this.
Good luck, President Obama; I know you'll represent us well! For more on what makes a good handshake, see my notes on Cindy McCain's sprained hand from last summer.