Our Best Stuff / Writies

European Perspective: Kiss, Hug or Handshake?


It may seem silly, but one of the most difficult aspects of living in a different country is the appropriate way to physically greet and say farewell to people. As an American, I’ve grown accustomed to handshakes being the universal tool for the aforementioned social scenarios. Regardless of whether the person was male or female, whether I knew them previously or we’d just met, I could thrust out my hand and that was that. Easy as pie.

Sometimes I’d find myself in a situation where a hug might be utilized, but this was usually reserved for close family, friends and strangers at a bar that happen to like the same sports team as me. The awkward hug was something I was  relatively cautious of, but I eventually learned to read body language and as a result knew when a hug was coming and/or when one was expected.

Suddenly I find myself in a nation with a no holds barred approach to social interaction. While hugs and handshakes are still used, there’s also the potential for kisses on the cheek.  Unlike most Americans I know, I’m not freaked out about this sort of contact, regardless of what gender it’s coming from and how well I know them (within reason of course). What I’m unsure of is how to know when or if it’s coming, how to properly prepare myself and whether or not I’m supposed to return the favor.

Obviously, I’d like to avoid uncomfortable scenarios but my main motivation for determining how to react to a cheek kiss is as a means of preventing headbutts. Yes, headbutts. See, the angle at which one goes in for a hug is quite different from the angle that one goes in for a kiss, especially in regards to multiple kisses. If one of the people taking part in this transaction is unsure of their role, lips and/or noses could come into direct contact with foreheads. Anyone who has ever been in a street fight knows how effective a forehead to someone’s tender face can be. Because the encounters I’m referring to are the complete opposite of street fights, the application of headbutts is a bit counterproductive. This may seem like an irrational fear, but I’ve already given a few mild headbutts since I’ve been here, both of which landed squarely on the faces of women   (I’m all about equality, but I have my limits).

Is it ok to stop someone right before you say “Hello!” or “Goodbye” and ask the question, “Are we going to kiss now”? To me this would be quite helpful but I do understand how it may interrupt the natural flow of a conversation.  I’m totally into having an organic atmosphere for social gatherings, but a little bit of cautionary scripting may not be such a bad idea. Maybe even a pre-meetup questionnaire would help everyone involved, especially when it comes to multinational parties. It could go something like this:

  • Frank is from the UK and will shake your hand. He has an especially firm grip.
  • Isabelle is from Spain and will be kissing you on both cheeks. She’ll go for your right cheek first, so plan accordingly
  • Ronaldo is from Portugal and will hug you regardless of how well you know him. These hugs last an inappropriate amount of time.
  • Ethan is from the United States and will sheepishly circle around the group until he knows the exact way in which he should greet you. He’ll eventually drink too much and hug everyone. If he starts kissing anyone, please call him a taxi.*

I know I have a culturally diverse readership and because of this, I’d really love some insight into this matter. If you have the time, write a message in the comments section structured like the example above. Perhaps we can come together and create a guide of sorts to assist people in determining an appropriate course of action. Until then, I’ll be lurking just outside the reach of my peers, nervously rehearsing a number of different contact related scenarios.

*These are all made up names based on real scenarios. If this offends you let me know and I’ll point you in the direction of material that’s far more objectionable. 

4 thoughts on “European Perspective: Kiss, Hug or Handshake?

  1. When I went to Italy it was to visit family, and so I prepared myself for the cheek kisses. Granted, I overthought this (a.k.a. mental panic mode) when everyone was saying their goodbyes; this was probably due to the combination of wine and grappa that evening. I followed my cousin’s lead, but I psyched myself to the point where I second-guessed at the last moment, almost mouth-to-mouth kissing with another male relative. The result was a successful European goodbye, but it was awkward getting to that point; eyes could be heard rolling.

    My cousin’s friends, however, were huggers, and random outsiders were hand shakers. So, I was all confused due to the diversity of greeting/departing. It’s best not to overthink, and just follow suit with everyone around you; every situation was different.

    • Haha, that’s a hilarious story and great advice. Too much thought can always cause problems (not too mention when you combine it with grappa, holy cow that stuff is intense).

      Thanks for reading!

  2. It is pretty pathetic but Ethan and I have practiced the cheek kiss before going out to meet with friends. In this case practice does NOT make perfect!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s