Greetings cause much pleasure but sometimes apprehension.
The handshake is the standard workplace greeting, and the big surprise between Asians and Westerners is how different the firmness of grip is.
Getting a good grip
I must admit that I was shocked when I first came to Singapore and felt how soft the normal handshake grip is.
In the United States, our grip stems from the Wild West with arm wrestling and bravado leading to the strong grip, almost knuckle-grinding but not quite, and you will find the same in Europe.
A strong grip shows your confidence. I also find it competitive.
What I have come to appreciate about the softer, but still firm, grip in Singapore is that I can really feel the hand of the other person.
It is not a competition, but a connection, and it says we are equal, which is what a handshake should be all about.
I personally like the Malay handshake, which is an even softer touch of the hands followed by a touch to the heart.
The handshake initially did not exist in Asia. Historically, it was a Western invention, coming from Roman soldiers bonding with each by clasping forearms.
Handshakes continue to indicate a bonding between people, and you see many variations including:
The “soul brother” handshake (thumbs clasped and fingers higher); and
The “glove” (the non-shaking hand comes over to cup the shaking hand, indicating warmth).
Here in Singapore, the “thumb snap” has made the rounds between kids, sportsmen and gangs.
Bows, hugs and kisses
Asia had — and still has — other greetings.
Place your hands together like a prayer and bow slightly for the traditional greetings in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet and India.
Namaste in India means “the spirit in me greets the spirit in you”, another heart-to-heart connection.
In Japan and Korea, the bow is the standard greeting.
Nowadays, the handshake and bow are often combined as East meets West across the globe.
The hongi (nose press) is used by the Maori in New Zealand and also by the indigenous peoples on the island of Sumba, Indonesia.
And in Doha, men will snap their noses together as a greeting.
The next step of closeness is the hug, typical in many countries and especially the Middle East.
Don’t be surprised, ladies of Singapore, if you are kissed on the cheeks by Europeans as a greeting.
This is the normal greeting, especially between different genders but not only.
The French will kiss twice but the Dutch and Belgians will go for three or four times.
Much kissing-greetings are done in Arab cultures as well, primarily among the same gender.
If you are married...
To indicate that you are married, the gesture of pointing to a ring (real or imaginary) on the finger is typical in the West as well as here.
But, specifically in Singapore, I find more common derivatives from Chinese and Malay culture.
The hands are made into loose fists, knuckles touching, thumbs up and facing each other, and then the thumbs move up and down a few times as if they were pressing on a button. This indicates an old custom of bowing, the thumbs representing the married couple.
Another gesture brings the index fingers together — two single people now joined together as one. Gestures of connection bring us closer together.