I’ve already discussed the extended greetings Ethiopians exchange. Additional fun twist: handshaking almost always accompanies the greeting, but you never know what form the handshake will take.
Sometimes, it’s a basic shake, though to be respectful it’s common to support your right arm with your left, as if the weight of this important person’s handshake is too great for just one hand to bear the burden alone.
When you start to become buddies, or if you’re shaking hands with a friend of a friend, things start to get interesting. The two major forms of more intimate handshaking are the shoulder bump (mostly among young people and men) and the cheek kissing (women do this with each other).
To perform the shoulder bump, you begin with a simple handshake, then lean in toward your greeting partner so your right shoulders touch, then withdraw and complete the handshake. Variations that increase the intimacy of the gesture include putting the left hand on the other’s back and/or swooping in for another bump. I really like this one — I think it will be a craze that will sweep America when I bring it back with me. Or maybe it will remain something of a secret handshake among those who have lived in Ethiopia.
The cheek kissing also begins as a handshake, and then the two parties lean in and touch cheeks — right, left, right — with or without air kissing noises.
When you greet more than one person, you usually greet each individual in the same manner: you extend the intimacy you have with one person to those with whom he or she is walking. Generally, an Ethiopian will greet the person to whom he or she is the closest first, then hold onto that person’s wrist with the left hand while greeting others with the right. It says to the American in me, “Don’t think you can sneak away while I’m distracted by this other person! I’m going to want to inquire after your health a few more times.”
I never know what’s coming, honestly; I just try to relax and follow the other person’s lead. There are more intense handshakes that involve kissing hands, kissing necks, or putting your chin on the other person’s shoulders (right, left, right), but these seem to be the cultural equivalent of a stereotypical cheek pinch or smack on the lips performed by an overzealous grandmother.
Little kids come up to shake my hand all the time, and, being the sucker I am, I find it hard to refuse. I regret this most of the time. Kids are gross, and they often have mud, drool, or another foreign substance on their hands. I’m not above pulling my hand away quickly and yelling “Harka kee xurri dha!” - your hand is dirty. Other PCVs have trained their neighborhood kids to favor the fist bump. I’ll get there someday. In the meantime, I just wash my hands thoroughly and often.