Study Abroad Etiquette

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Before heading out to a new country, ISV intern Mei Xin Luo shares some study abroad etiquette that will help you avoid some possible awkward encounters.

On a recent trip to Guangdong, China a few years ago I was asked to attend a social gathering with distant relatives and family friends who I have mostly severed contact with since my childhood immigration to the United States at the age of six.  Being almost fully reared and bred in the States, my understanding of Chinese cultural etiquette was little to none – which explains why, during that social convention, I drew people who I scarcely had in my memory into my arms for a good old fashioned American hug – the way I handled greetings between friends here in the States.  Of course hugs are not so intensely intimate to the point where they are banned or completely discouraged in Chinese society, but it is not exactly appropriate between mere acquaintances.  Even when I attempted to make the hug a usual form of greeting between my parents and I after seeing my American friends do so, my mother only awkwardly patted my back in an unattached and embarrassed fashion.  After gaining a few strange remarks and laughs regarding my overly friendly gesture at the social event, I was reminded that I was in a place whose earliest form of greeting was bowing.  Though modern China has largely watered down the complete “kow tow” into a mere nod of the head, this maintenance of personal space between individuals still survives and will not be replaced by any closer bodily contact any time soon either.

A local from Thailand performs the Thai greeting, the "wai".
A local from Thailand performs the Thai greeting, the “wai”.

So before you head out to your study abroad destination, remember to not only pack your necessities, but also educate yourself on the culture of that destination to avoid possible awkward or offensive encounters! At this point in time, the handshake is the near universal way to greet another party, but there are some areas in which people conduct themselves in different manners.  And even if the handshake system is a greeting that countries have come to accept and assimilate into, in order to fully immerse yourself into the culture (which is really another primary benefit that you gain from a study abroad experience), it is always good to be knowledgeable of the existing traditions and perhaps perform them yourself! Below is a sample of a few of these greeting systems that stray from the commonalities:

Italy: Italy is yet another country that uses the near universal form of greeting – the handshake!  Friends in Italy are known to kiss each other on both cheeks.  Fun fact: To motion for a waiter, raise your index finger at a restaurant! 

Japan: Though travelers are not expected to do the traditional ninety-degree bow greeting in Japan, they should however, do a slight nod of the head.  Usually, respect is correlated with how deep the bow is.

Thailand: In Thailand, the traditional greeting is the pressing of the hands together near the heart and then slightly bowing.

Tibet:  A seemingly bizarre way to greet people in Tibet is to stick their tongues out! This tradition evolved as a result of a tyrannical King whose tongue was black.  Because people feared his reincarnation, they stuck out their tongues to prove to others that they were not the reincarnation of the tyrant king.

India: In India, the most common greeting is placing your hands together and holding them near your chest.

Holland:  The kiss of course is a very common practice in many countries, but in Holland people kiss three times instead of the usual two!

Botswana: Botswana’s greeting is very similar to the handshake, but without the tight grip.  People usually lightly touch and slide across each other’s hands.


This article was written by Mei Xin Luo, ISV Blogger/Writer interninternational student voice Mei Xin Luo

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