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Cultural Pas Faux: Shaking Hands

Today, one of my western friends seemed to be very surprised about the fact that in Saudi Arabia men and women who are not related to each other do not shake hands, as it is, generally speaking, socially unacceptable.

I can imagine that some of you may be very surprised as well when finding out about this, so I thought that a post about this cultural norm may end up being helpful for most of you.

It is true, if a man and a woman who are not related to each other meet, under whatever circumstances because actually that is a no-go as well, they are generally not supposed to shake hands with each other. Sometimes they may exchange greetings but I am not too sure how that all works.  In this culture men and women have to be related to each other in order to interact, which is why shaking hands or expressing affection for a non-relative in public is a very rude thing to do here.

Now, that does not mean that not related men and women NEVER EVER communicate. A woman can ask a salesperson how much something costs or whatever similar talk is going on at a cash desk. A woman also has a driver whom she tells where to go etc. So as you can see, communication does take place but it is limited to very necessary or formal things.

But as you absorb this information, please keep in mind that you should never throw people all into one pot.

There are always exceptions and that applies to any description of the locals that I talk about on this blog.

Saudis who have spent some time in the west or are just generally less conservative, actually do shake hands with women. Formally, as a way of greeting them and most likely in the presence of some relatives. It also depends on the setting and not just on the person alone. I mean it’s not like the local people at my school never talk to me. In fact, the majority of my friends be it in Saudi Arabia or Germany are Muslims. So if people interact within a western environment, their behavior may certainly be a little different.

On the other hand, I have also been in situations where the men did not pay any attention to the women at all. It was as if we did not exist. So as you can see, everyone is different.

My advice would be to just wait and see what the local person does. If he is okay with shaking hands, then go ahead. If not, you should just respect that. I have been invited to a house for tea with my family once and as one of the hosts came in, he actually held out his hand. By then I was so into local limitations, all I could do, was just stare at the hand, wondering what was going on here, and then to my dad, making sure it was okay to shake hands.

I know this all sounds strange but let’s be honest, some cultures are very different from others. In Spain and France people kiss each other on the cheek, in Germany and elsewhere people shake hands and in Japan people bow. So if we are okay with these customs, why not respect the Arab ones, too?


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  • Reply
    March 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    This is very interesting because earlier in Kuwait I thought men had to initiate a hand shake with me. Just recently I found out that I should be the one initiating. It isn’t rude here, if we don’t, but I should be the one saying “I am comfortable with you shaking my hand”. However, like you said everyone is different. It’s so interesting that we are “neighbors” yet so many things are so different while similar all at the same time.

    • Reply
      March 9, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      It is interesting indeed. I ws born Belarusian and in Belarus, like in Russia, it is also the woman that has to make the sign that she is okay with shaking hands. It is also fascinating how different the places are. I had some Kosovar classmates go to Dubai and when they came back and I said I am moving to Saudi, they thought it woukd be the same as Dubia and were surprised when I said it isn’t.
      Thanks for stoping by! 🙂

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