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The body language clinic: International etiquette pt3


Following on from our tour of the Middle East, resident expert Peter Clayton takes the community to South East Asia and the Orient, periodically stopping off to give us some essential do's and don'ts of etiquette.

Understanding a little about etiquette in different countries can create a good impression and improve confidence on both sides of the table.


The Western handshake is becoming the most common form of greeting, especially in business, but a nod or short bow is fine. Guests are introduced to Chinese people in order of their hosts' seniority. Business cards will probably be exchanged next, and should, ideally, be in your language and in Chinese. Present cards with both hands as this is more respectful. The Chinese are generally non-tactile people, but they stand closer than Westerners. The young display affection publicly more than they used to.
Chinese people do not like to say no, and may shake their heads in silence if they don't like what you're asking. In the cities there is not much eye contact in public, although you might get stared at in smaller places. Silence is a virtue, a sign of politeness and contemplation. During conversation, try not to interrupt. Food bowls are held under the chin. Wait for the host to pick up his chopsticks before eating. Refusing food is also considered impolite. Chinese etiquette is to decline gifts two or three times before accepting them even if they are wanted.


Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands and some 300 ethnic groups, so across the whole country gestures and behaviour vary greatly. But for urban areas a few general points can apply, particularly for business purposes. A handshake plus a slight nod is customary for greeting, congratulating or parting, for both sexes. Aside from this, men do not touch women in public. You should always use people's titles to address them. In West Java, they use a Thai greeting, with the palms together, fingertips towards chin and a nod. Indonesians do not like to show feelings, especially negative ones. They don't like to disappoint people, so they avoid disagreeing in public and smile to hide shock or embarrassment. You should avoid showing excessive gratitude or outbursts of anger. The sole of the shoe is a taboo, the right hand is used far more than the 'unclean' left. Pointing with fingers is very rude and touching people’s heads is not advisable. When dining, leave a little food. A clear plate means you want more.

Hong Kong

The conventional handshake is the most common greeting. The Chinese people do not like body contact, though men may hold hands when walking. They may also stand fairly close by Western standards. Don't blink too much in meetings as it can be interpreted as lack of interest. At mealtimes, Chinese and Western customs will sometimes be mixed. Chopsticks, for example, may be used in conjunction with knives and forks either for different dishes or different course. Tea may be served during meetings. If the host leaves his tea untouched for a long time, this may be an indication that he considers the meeting to be over.


The Japanese and other Asians find too much direct eye contact aggressive and rude.  So tone down your eye contact. Bowing is of course the traditional greeting in Japan. The Western handshake is also widespread, but with a lighter grip. Most Japanese find direct eye contact intimidating. Overt displays of emotion are unwelcome. The tiniest gestures have meaning, so be careful to limit your own hand and arm gestures. Business card etiquette is perhaps more important than anywhere else. The Japanese usually present their business cards while holding them in both hands. To the Japanese, visiting cards are not just bits of stiff card with names printed on them, they are part of their owner's identity, and accordingly are treated with great respect.
When you first receive a card, take time to study it, then put it carefully on the table in front of you. When the meeting is finished put it in your wallet, not in a pocket, and especially not in a hip pocket – that means you could sit on it. Those Japanese who frequently travel abroad are of course becoming aware of the Western approach to business cards, but for the many with no foreign experience, this is still quite a sensitive point. Listening attentively and not interrupting are crucial. The Japanese don't like to say no, so be aware that nodding does not necessarily signal agreement. Japanese chopstick etiquette is much like China's; the major difference is that food bowls are held lower. You should pick up dishes on your left side with your right hand and vice versa. A common Japanese toast is 'Kan-pai' ('Drain the cup') Remove your shoes when entering a home or restaurant.

South Korea

Bowing is the traditional form of greeting, perhaps combined with a handshake if greeting Westerners.  Women don't shake hands, just nod. Deference to rank and elders is important. The senior offers to shake hands first; the junior bows first. Koreans are taught to avoid eye contact, and a youngster making eye contact with an elder is regarded as displaying defiance. As in Japan, read business cards thoroughly and keep them to hand. Walking directly behind people can be considered impolite so try to avoid it. Koreans avoid saying 'no' by tipping their heads back and sucking air. Laughter is used to cover-up all sorts of emotions. It is disrespectful to pour your own drink – the host should do it – or to open gifts at a time they are given.


The Malaysian population is made up of 57% Malays (Muslim), 32% Chinese and 11% Indians. The handshake is used universally. Within the Chinese population, men and women will shake hands with each other, but not with Indians or Malays. Malays greet with the salaam, but theirs differs slightly from the Arab version - they simply extend the hands, putting the fingertips together, then place the hands on the chest.  Indians greet with the namaste. Before entering Malay mosques and homes, you should remove your shoes and leave them with everyone else's. In this part of the world Indians shake their heads to indicate agreement.


There has long been an American presence in the Philippine Islands, so Western gestures are familiar. Handshakes are the norm for men, women and children. Quickly raising the eyebrows is another informal greeting. In public, two women may hold hands, but men do not. Filipino taboos include staring, talking loudly, and women smoking in public. At meals, always leave some food on your plate to indicate that the host has served enough. An empty plate indicates that you would like more. Filipinos will point to something not with the hands, which is seen as rude, but with their eyes, or even sometimes with pursed lips.


The Thai greeting is called the 'wai' - the hands are held together as if in prayer, and the head nodded in a slight bow, very like the Indian namaste. The wai can be used for greeting, parting, gratitude and apology. The higher the hands, the more respectful the greeting, but the fingertips should not be higher than the face. Remove your shoes when entering someone’s home, even though some Thais defer to the West and will let you keep them on. Don't step on the doorsill as Thais believe that a deity lives there. The feet are lowly, so don't point them or show the soles. Patting someone's back or shoulders is offensive. Two men might hold hands when walking, but otherwise there are no public displays of affection. Thais particularly dislike loud boisterous or aggressive behaviour, don't talk in a raised voice, and never show anger during negotiations.


The population includes Chinese, Muslims and Indians. Manners may show British influences, since Singapore was once part of the British Empire. The handshake is the standard greeting, perhaps combined with a slight bow for Asians. Women make the first move when shaking hands. The old are held in great respect, people usually rise when they enter a room and give up seats for them in public places. Singapore is a very clean and tidy country and there are severe local penalties – typically large fines – for dropping litter, even cigarette ends.


Greetings are formal and somewhat flowery speeches. Eloquence is a Samoan speciality. When visiting a home, wait until a mat has been laid down before entering, then remove your shoes. Sit cross-legged on the mat. Conversation tends to take place only when people are seated. Be more careful not to point your feet at anyone. The Samoan national drink is called kava. It is traditional to spill a few drops before drinking.


The handshake is the usual greeting, though a nod (with eyes cast downwards) is acceptable. Like other Asian countries, the Taiwanese respect business cards, which should be read carefully and kept to hand. The elderly are treated with great deference. Here, 'No' is indicated by holding the hand up at face level, with the palm out and moving it back and forth. Toast by saying 'kan-pei'. Use both hands to give and receive presents.

As I mention in revious articles, I became increasingly aware that I could have written a great deal more, with comments on negotiating, seating plans, the appropriate percentage of eye contact and so on and so on. I decided, because of the length of the article, to cut it down and try to give a brief overview. If there are TZ members who can add to the final article I will include them and compile the series into a download.
Peter Clayton is a leading body language expert, speaker and trainer as well as a consultant for the BBC and ITV. He writes for a wide range of national papers and magazines and is a specialist consultant to other speakers, leading businesses, celebrities and politicians. For more information, visit his website:

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Peter Clayton

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