That Critical First Meeting
Every culture has rules for when you first meet someone. American culture is no different. Americans make a judgment about the person they meet based not only on his/her language and behavior but also on such intangibles as facial expressions and perceived warmth. To ensure a first meeting with an American businessperson goes well, here are some basics to keep in mind.
Eye contact: Look the other person in the eye. This shows confidence and is taken as a sign of sincerity. Avoiding eye contact makes a person appear weak or evasive, perhaps untrustworthy. After a few seconds, you can take a break and look away, then look back for several more seconds. (Looking away periodically is important because eye contact for 100% of the time can be seen as too aggressive or having sexual interest.)
Facial expression: Smile. Americans see this as a sign of warmth and friendliness. It indicates openness and a willingness to work together. (NOTE: While we cannot control the teeth we are born with, American dental practice has raised expectations of good dental health for anyone in the public eye. Teeth that are missing, crooked, or stained can harm a person’s professional appearance. For this reason, more adults are getting braces to align crooked teeth. Dental implants are now commonly sought to replace lost teeth. Treatments are also available to whiten teeth that are stained due to aging, cigarette smoking, or coffee and tea drinking.)
photo via Fotolia
Handshake: If your first culture does not routinely shake hands, this is one area of particular importance. Americans believe that a firm handshake on introduction is a sign of sincerity and good character. There are five levels of firmness in a handshake.
- the dead fish: the hand is limp and unresponsive and feels like a piece of lifeless meat
- weak handshake: the hand is somewhat engaged but feels soft and unsure
- moderate handshake: the grip has medium resistance
- firm handshake: the hand is strong and confident
- the bone crusher: this handshake hurts you and makes you wish this person were from a bowing culture
Everyone needs to grip somewhere in the middle, avoiding levels 1 (wet noodle) and 5 (knuckle grinder). It is a good idea for men to grip between 3 and 4 on the handshake scale. For women, a firmness between 2.5 and 3.5 is considered appropriate in business contexts. The old-fashioned handshake for American women was to shake at only the fingers or fingertips. In today’s business world, both men and women are expected to shake hands with the hands fully engaged, with the web between the thumb and index finger touching the web of the other person. If the other person’s handshake is weak or not fully engaged, it communicates reluctance or disinterest in the relationship. Some people feel it signals superiority over the person being met. On the other side, the “bone crusher” handshake is viewed as overly aggressive or perhaps even an attempt to intimidate.
double-handed handshake (via Washington Post)
When meeting an American, engage in eye contact, smile, and pump the other person’s hand 2-3 times (about one second), then let go. Occasionally, a person will hold on longer than this, which might be taken as a sign of extra friendliness; however, too long of a grip (over 2 seconds) can make an American feel uncomfortable. As a sign of additional warmth or hospitality, you may put the palm of your left hand on the back of the person’s right hand so that his/her hand is sandwiched between both of your hands. This double-handed grip may last 1-2 seconds. Be careful with elderly acquaintances; an overly firm handshake may injure fragile hands.
Language: Say, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ___.” (In the blank, repeat this person’s name. You will need to repeat this person’s name three times during the initial encounter if you wish to remember the name.) Note: English speakers say “meet” only on the first meeting. Upon a subsequent meeting, say, “It’s nice to see you again.” (Not “meet you again.” ) Other options: “It’s really great to finally meet you, Susan. Ben here has told me so many good things about you.”
photo via Fotolia
Formality: Americans tend to be less formal than many cultures. However, it is not a bad idea to show respect to an older person when you first meet him/her by using the person’s title plus last name (instead of first name only). Here, you can take a cue from the person who is introducing you. Note the difference in the sentences below.
- Khalil, this is my old friend, Bob. (Your reply: “Nice to meet you, Bob.” )
- Khalil, this is my friend, Bob Pesek. Dr. Pesek is director of…. (Your polite reply: “It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Pesek.” )
After the second exchange, Dr. Pesek may invite you to “call me Bob,” which you are then welcome to do. Note: Americans use a title (Dr, Mr, Ms,* Capt, Pastor) only with a last name. Some cultures (for example, Arabic) use the title along with a first name, but this is inappropriate in English. Do not say “Mr. Alan” or “Ms. Stacy.”
Remembering names: The most sacred sound to the human ear is one’s own name. If you are able to recall a name later in the conversation or in the future, you signal to the other person that you value knowing him/her and have made the effort to remember his/her name. For this purpose, insert the name in conversation several times before saying goodbye. For example, “How long have you lived in Hong Kong, Rebecca?” Making a comment: “Wow, Doug, that’s a great tie. Did you find it here in the city?”
photo via Fotolia
If the person comes from a different background, the name may be unusual. If you don’t understand the name upon introduction, immediately ask for help since repetition is crucial. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you say that name again?” If you don’t catch it a second time, apologize for not hearing it and ask the person to spell it. This may lead to an interesting conversation about the person’s name and background. For example, “I’ve never heard the name Headbloom before. Is it common in the U.S.?”
Saying farewell: Leave-taking provides one last chance to practice the new person’s name. Be sure to include it: “It was so nice to meet you, Samuel. I look forward to seeing you again soon.” If there was something particularly interesting in the conversation, you may close with, “Sarah, I look forward to continuing our conversation about ______.” or “I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on ______.”
Americans may not shake hands on subsequent greetings if encounters are fairly often, but it is appropriate to shake hands in farewell after the first meeting. If the conversation has gone particularly well or a special warmth was perceived, the handshake may be accompanied by one or two pats of the left palm on the person’s shoulder or upper arm when saying goodbye. If you feel a particular closeness to the other person, the double-handed handshake can communicate special warmth.
NOTE: Today, the formal way of addressing a woman is with the title “Ms.” plus last name. The distinction of marital status between “Miss” and “Mrs.” is seen by contemporary professional women as unnecessary and out-dated. However, if you know that a person prefers the more traditional Mrs. or Miss, then you should use that title in connection with her last name.
For more information on handshaking etiquette, go here.