Hug, Handshake or Kiss?

You and a friend meet. How do you greet?

Hug? Handshake? Kiss?

Do you embrace, extend your hand or plant a kiss on the cheek?
It may be common sense to most people, but for you as the expat, it’s a valid question. For the expat, it can be uneasy one for the first couple encounters. Is the handshake too cold? Is a kiss appropriate? Opposite sex? (as if it should matter). Big breasted? (ok, for hugs, it matters since they get in the way)

But seriously, what do you do? Depends on where you are.
How about the feeling behind it? Depends on who you are and where you’re from.


What’s a hug, what’s a handshake, and what’s a kiss?
Everyone knows this…well, just in case…

According to Wikipedia

“A hug is a form of physical intimacy, not necessarily sexual, that usually involves closing or holding the arms around another person or group of persons.”

“A handshake is a short ritual in which two people grasp each other’s right hand, often accompanied by a brief up and down movement of the grasped hands.”

“A kiss is the act of pressing one’s lips against the body of another. Cultural connotations of kissing vary widely.”

“Cultural connotations of kissing vary widely.”
That’s a big point.

Okay, my definitions…

Being an American expat, I have my own take on the 3 ways to say “hello”.

The Hug
Pretty straightforward: – open arms, step in, wrap and embrace – there you have it.
Guys usually do the man-hug: step-in, wrap from afar, pat-pat-pat, pop away.
Just don’t get too affectionate, lest you come off as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

The Handshake
Also pretty straightforward thing: extend open sideways palm, grasp, shake, shake, shake -boom goes the dynamite.
Social etiquette says a firm grip is best.
Totally the norm in the U.S. and northern Europe, apart from the closest friends.
However, After spending enough time where a kiss is the norm, you feel the handshake to be cold and awkward. It’s too business-like for friends. Is my buddy asking me for a beer or to attend a meeting? [quote]

The Cheek Kiss
Definitely not straightforward. For Americans, this is challenging. Questions flurry through the mind: this really normal? is this intimate? should our lips touch? Whoa, which way first?
Toughest part is knowing how many times to kiss and which direction first. No easy answer here.

Get the facts
Get the facts

Kiss / Handshake Line In Europe?
In Europe, it’s going to be between a handshake or a cheek kiss. This is totally generalizing, but I’ll tell that in Northern Europe – it’s a handshake. Southern Europe – it’s a kiss. That is so broad, though, it’s only to help set your expectations. But it’s no guide what to do when you get there.

Okay, For Friends, it’s Fine. When Does it Get Strange?
You get to your friend’s house. You find she has other friends over. Introductions start. Your friend starts to introduce you to her friends. Now what? Do you extend your hand out or do you lean in for the kiss on the cheek? One friend is from Sicily, one from Paris, and one from Turkey.
The thing about the cheek kiss is, once it’s done once within a group, more chance all will continue it, even if it’s hardly the norm for each. Funny that way, which tells you it’s more natural and desirable than a handshake, right?

Your Very Own How-To Give a Cheek Kiss

Generally speaking, North Americans see the cheek kiss as foreign. We shake hands or hug. So, I see plenty of room for learning the cheek kiss. Maybe we’re just avoiding the potential mix up. The potential for embarrassment is in the starting point.

Cheek kissing is not hard. You’ve hugged someone before, right? Okay, then you can kiss a cheek. Let’s get down to procedure.

Here are a few pointers:

    Don’t tense up. Relax. – It’s a “hello,” not a dentist visit.
    Don’t close your eyes. – Else you’re puckered up in mid-air, alone. Embarrassing!
    Know first what side comes first, left-right or right-left? – Imagine what happens if you don’t.
    Do NOT plant your lips firmly on their cheek –it’s cheek/cheek, not suck-a-cheek kissing.
    Mistakes will happen, it’s a fact – Rarely but often enough to happen, someone goes the unexpected way,then BooM – for a split second, you’re liplocked. Embarrassing? Yes. A big deal? No.

Is it Right-Left or Left-then-Right? Can 3 Lefts Make a Right?
This is so, so, so dependent on where you live. If somebody claims “Oh, well in Italy they kiss 3 times,” that’s BS. It’s different per country and very often different within the country.

In France, the faire la bise or “to kiss hello” can mean kissing once, twice, up to five times! Even for French people who travel around, it takes time to get used to the new way!

A Pressing Question: Hug, Handshake or Kiss

In the end, what’s the best practice?
Well, follow someone else’s lead, of course! 🙂 Sure – it works, especially if you’re being introduced by someone who lives there, just copy what they do. Just don’t find yourself puckered up in mid-air…and don’t leave anyone else hanging there either.
Enjoy. 🙂

Oh, sidenote: If you want to compare the ice-breakers of expats to ‘non-expats’, then click here.

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An American who likes to move around. I now live on the eastern Canadian seaboard. My job? A stay-at-home dad for two cute but demanding bosses. My wife? Also cute; not so demanding. My wife and I both love travel. We met in South Korea, travelled across Australia, India, Europe and beyond. We lived in Czech Republic for four years. Many stories to tell and experience to share. If you let me, I will help you travel as we do. Enjoy.

5 thoughts on “Hug, Handshake or Kiss?”

  1. In Brazil it depends. Generally in business meetings, a handshake is the choice but between women, a cheek kiss is also acceptable. It depends on the business.

    Between friends, and on casual meeting, definitely cheek kiss. If you’re in São Paulo, one cheek kiss. If you’re in Rio de Janeiro, you’ll kiss the two cheeks! This changes from state to state.


  2. It’s when I meet Europeans abroad that I get really confused! Since I’m a handshaker or hugger having the kisses – one, two or three – I loved this post, the confusion is so true and inevitable 🙂

  3. The restaurant advertises “all you can eat sushi” for a fixed price.
    Reply to each question to the best of your capability. Just don’t forget to wear some socks and other stuff that will warm you up.

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