Prior to visiting a country, I read on its customs and traditions, research its greetings and good byes. Once in the country I learn that I could have saved the time! The reality always seems to be different, and obviously various situations offer endless opportunities for learning on the fly. Sure, we knew that the French, as some other European nations habitually kiss on the cheek at least twice. Men kiss or air kiss men and women, women kiss women and men. They do not hug or pull the other person towards them but rather lean forward slightly. They do it when they have already met a person and when they meet for the first time, especially in an informal situation. It is also a generational thing. Young people seem to do it indiscriminately among themselves. At work, men may or may not shake hands but not kiss. It used to be that men would wait for the woman to initiate the first step, waiting to see if she expects to shake hands or kiss, but not anymore. Here’s to gender equality! Close relatives and friends hug and kiss. And nobody is aware of or interested in the visitors own customs, so either they ask you or you tell them or you just go with the flow.
ALL young people I meet in France kiss me on the cheek twice and expect me to do the same. Since for me they are all boys and girls and for them I am someone who is their parents age, it’s natural for me. It happens in Germany and even in the more reserved UK, so I learned to react good-naturedly. For me they are all kids; we kiss, girls also hug me, especially those whose own parents are far away. Boys may feel a bit awkward when greeting me for the first time but completely relaxed by the time we say Good bye. My husband tried to offer a handshake but they simply did not notice it and kissed him instead. I quietly suggested he follow the local custom, so he suffered manfully through a round of cheek-kissing.
“How do we do it here?” a British visitor of our own generation asked me politely when we first met. “We don’t”, I told him kindly. A woman may do nothing, no handshakes no hugs no kisses while greeting. When saying Good bye, if she so wishes, she may hug a person slightly and even air kiss them. When it is an old friend, a slight hug and/or an air kiss is fine. Men nod or shake hands. It’s fair to say that we play it by ear. In an informal situation, we do as the Romans do so to speak. With kids, we share the adult parental warmth, kindness and welcome. In a more formal environment it is quite easy to evade an exuberant hugger and kisser.
On many international occasions I would observe the same scenes. A laughing wildly gesticulating Italian would move closer and closer to a Britisher until the latter would be literally up against the wall, most probably feeling intensely uncomfortable. It is perhaps better to learn a little about the customs of the country you are going to visit, for instance to know that the British prefer to have about a yard’s (1 m) distance from their conversation partner while Italians may move so close to you that they may practically brush their body against you.
if you don’t want to be hugged and kissed by lots of men you are meeting for the first time, or to endure a round of firm handshakes which may leave your hand crushed and sore, step back a little and inform them with a charming smile that it is not done in your country. It is actually a nice conversation piece, a starter and a pause filler. And don’t worry, men often don’t have a clue so they will hover uncertainly until you kindly explain it to them. Even if whatever you do may constitute a social faux pas, people know you are not a local, so they will let it slide. You are not the country premier who mistakenly hugged and kissed his woman counterpart and left her somewhat shaken, while giving the mass media a subject to chew on – until another person hugged the Queen when they should not have. Well, the Queen has impeccable manners, she copes with any unexpected and awkward situation.