Workplace culture dilemma – to hug or to handshake

These days with the explosion of the Internet lots of companies work on a global scale. Teleconferences with customers or colleagues from India or America are commonplace. Roll back even fifteen years ago when it wasn’t as prolific; unless you worked for a multi-national company, and dealing with someone from a different country could cause all kinds of issues with clash of the cultures. This is where my story starts.

Working for a busy company in Dublin with branches all over the world most of my day to day work related interactions are via teleconference. I love ‘meeting’ new people and understanding a little of their culture.

Some of them have moved from their homeland to other countries due to work and its interesting to learn how they and their families adapt to a new culture as they try to immerse themselves into the fabric of the community. Its enriching to hear their life stories.

Occasionally we hold face to face meetings and everyone involved flies out to one location for a series of meetings that usually take place over a couple of days. Things like strategy, budget, program goals get discussed.

On one such occasion about fifteen years ago we had delegates from Europe and the US fly out to Dublin for a series of week long meetings. The head of Europe arrived into the office bright and early on the Monday morning and I was first in the office. Having talked to him for the past year over teleconference it was my first time to meet him face to face.

He was German but had located to Spain after a promotion, with his family. He was a very nice guy and my perception of him was of a hard working guy, measured and controlled. He was methodical and authoritative but intrinsically fair in all his dealings. I liked working with him.

This morning he looked a little flustered trying to find a spare desk to get settled into. I approached him to introduce myself and help get him sorted. He turned around with a big smile and said jovially

“Ahh Henri, I recognize hou from your photo. Itz gut to finally meet hou face to face”, and with that he reached out his right hand. He was much taller and broader than me and I had a moment of panic. Do we hug or do we shake hands. This could all go horribly wrong and first impressions last.

Why had I bounded in without thinking this through. Spaniards were known for their hugs and air kissing but Germans favoured the handshake. The Irish, on the other hand, were known for their warm welcomes and cead mile failte so what would he expect from me.

I tend to be demonstrative when I am talking to people even when its over the phone but I am conscious of adapting my style to suit my audience as I work a lot with technical people who prefer spreadsheets over visual graphics. I try to adopt a more serious, less enthusiastic approach but natural tendencies have a way of sneaking out.

My natural instinct was to hug but given that Hans was German perhaps a handshake was the way to go…

but he had been living in Spain for over a year and they prefer to hug and kiss. Oh gosh ‘air kissing’, now why did that have to pop into my head. Weren’t things complicated enough already.

I became conscious that time was ticking and I was still standing like a moron. My brain was screaming

“do something”




Somewhere my brain registered the movement of his right hand and so I went for the handshake. Relieved I had broken out of my inertia I forgot to moderate my natural enthusiasm and extended my right arm for a firm handshake with a cheesy grin plastered on my face when I hit solid chest.

At the same time I felt the embrace of his hug my right hand connected with his chest but instead of pulling back I went into damage control and instinctively swung my left arm around to complete a half hug and patted him on the back.

My right arm was wedged in between us and I didn’t tug for fear I’d rip his shirt open.

The heat of mortification slowly crept up my neck to my face. I could have wailed into his chest and begged for a do over but I held it together and after what seemed like forever I pulled back and pretended nothing odd had happened at all. For all he knew this could be an Irish hug. Oh who was I kidding. I just hoped he wouldn’t judge me.

A polite cough mercifully intruded and I jumped back to say good morning. It was the head of the Irish technical division. It was clear he had witnessed the awkward exchange judging by the incredulous look on his face. He stepped forward and embraced Hans throwing me a ‘this is how its supposed to be done’ kind of look and I scuttled back to my desk to bury myself in self pity.

Roll on eight months later and Hans was back in town. He was meeting with my new department and was introduced individually to everyone. When it came to my turn he gave a friendly grin of recognition and then as we both stepped forward there was an awkward pause.

I saw a flicker in his eyes, an indication he was recalling our last encounter.

This time though I knew how to respond so with arms wide open I went for the hug. He obviously had the same idea as he went for the handshake. At this point I should note that I was heavily pregnant and didn’t accurately gauge the distance between us as my tummy took up quite a few inches so my hug was more of me holding him at both sides as I couldn’t reach around him.

So there we stood in front of a room full of people – me holding him awkwardly by the waist and him narrowly avoiding punching me and arcing around in an embrace that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a forties dance floor.

“Gut to see hou again Henri. You are quite a bit bigger than when we last met, no?”

“Good to see you too Hans. Yes I’ve been working on a little side project of my own”

This time I didn’t scuttle anywhere, mainly because I couldn’t.

I sat back down at the table with as much dignity as I could muster. Yes, I knew I’d be the topic of the conversation at lunchtime and the good natured sniggers would echo around the office for weeks but there wasn’t a person around the table that hadn’t done something foolish at some point. They were probably better at covering it up than me.

Nowadays we have classes in how to bridge the culture gap to enable new recruits  avoid the pitfalls. With smart phones and social media this generation is much more engaged with peers from all over the world so it may not ever be an issue.



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