Bonjour! (Kiss, kiss, kiss)*
Hello. Nice to meet you. (right hand extended, waist level)
* language and number of kisses may vary
These appear to be the accepted Western greeting rituals. But which to use? With whom? When? And how are they properly executed? It’s no big deal until you screw it up. One moment is all it takes to go from potentially interesting person to totally awkward inept proto-caveman. That first impression is everything, right?
As an expat, this issue comes up frequently.
Take the first time I delivered Brendan to the carpool point for his out-of-village soccer match, the year we were here on sabbatical. Turns out this was not a simple drop-off. Oh, no.
People pulled up in their cars and then got out. The kids went around the whole parking lot kissing everybody – kiss, kiss, kiss. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. The adults also went around the parking lot kissing each other. The men shook each others’ hands. But the women got to kiss and be kissed by absolutely everyone. Anyone new came in, they got out and made the rounds. They stayed out of their cars until everyone was there and had been properly greeted.
It was 7:30 am! I was barely functional. I’d thrown on a pair of sweats, my hair was tied back in a hasty ponytail, and I had coffee-breath. I was horrified. I knew they all kissed each other at matches. But the carpool drop-off? Sweet Jesus, what planet have I landed on? I stayed in the shelter of the car, the only parent not to exit, hoping no one would notice me as I tried to be very still and small behind the wheel.
I discussed this a while ago with my friend and fellow ex-pat Liz, who has been here a lot longer than I have. Which cheek do you offer first? Do you touch their cheek with your lips? Do you touch their arm, too, or just offer your face?
She laughed knowingly. That’s how they check out what perfume you’re wearing. Perfume? That had never occurred to me.
There are some men who try to sneak a real kiss in there, too, she said. You have to be on the lookout, and offer them “air kisses” instead (see below).
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. You don’t kiss with sunglasses on. A good rule of thumb is if someone is removing glasses as he/she approaches you, a kiss is in the offing. Best not to extend your hand at that point unless you really don’t want the kiss.
2. Men don’t usually kiss other men unless they’re really good friends. They shake hands. Even teenagers greet each other formally like this. (The girls all get kissed, though.)
3. As far as I can tell, you offer your left cheek first. The French kiss twice, the French-Swiss thrice. But apparently some French people kiss as many as four times. Depends on a multitude of factors. Context is everything.
4. After extensive experimentation, I think it’s best not to actually kiss the person’s cheek, but just make a light smacking sound in the air next to it. The distance that should be maintained between your cheeks is also debatable. In this regard, it’s much more sanitary than hand-shaking because cheeks aren’t exposed to the same stuff as hands.
5. I still haven’t figured out whether you touch the person at all, or whether you just lean in to kiss. A good friend might grab your shoulder(s) warmly as you greet each other. Others shake hands and kiss at the same time.
6. If you meet somebody in the middle of a run and you’re really sweaty (or if you’re sick), you just kiss the air three times, turning your head a little between kisses. This is the “air kiss.”
7. The first time you meet someone, you don’t kiss, you shake hands. However, you don’t have to know someone very well at all to be expected to kiss him/her when meeting in a social context. I haven’t yet figured out when this transition takes place. This makes for many an awkward moment.
8. As an American, sometimes you can get away with shaking hands in situations where other people are kissing, without seeming too rude. I do this in crowded social settings where the potential kissing overwhelms me.
9. Authority seems to play a role – you don’t kiss your kids’ teachers or your boss or your kids’ soccer coaches, unless you’re in a social setting and you have passed the kiss-no kiss transition point with them (which, as I pointed out above, I have not yet figured out).
10. Beards present their own special issues. I really enjoy seeing my friend Greg, but I always cringe when my cheek hits his beard.
11. You don’t just make the rounds kissing people when you arrive somewhere, you also have to kiss them all when you leave. No sneaky exits allowed. If you happen to be the hostess of a large dinner party, you get a lot of kisses. Best to put on some good perfume.
12. Speaking of making the rounds, when greeting a group of people, it seems that the protocol is to kiss the ones you know and shake hands with the ones you don’t know. The downside of this is that the more people you meet, the more kiss- no kiss transitions you have to try and figure out later on. But that’s no reason to become a recluse. Get out there and pucker up.
13. Don’t assume just because another person is not Swiss, they won’t follow local customs. Most of my American ex-pat friends here greet each other with kisses (see Greg, above). The members of my writing group – none of whom is native Swiss – kiss each other when meeting and again upon leaving.
14. If in doubt, a handshake is always okay. Not the lengthy American oscillating version, just a single pump. And pay attention to the grip – you shouldn’t be aiming to either break bones or give a limp fish impression.
There are, like I mentioned above, endless ways to screw up. But the lovely thing about the Swiss is that they’re so understanding. Nobody here will label you an impolite oaf just because you screw up your kisses a few times. You have to work harder to earn that moniker.
The other night we had Marc’s entire lab group over for dinner, plus a couple of American guests. I kissed about half of them, had a few half-handshake-half-kisses, shook hands with the rest, and one of the American visitors gave me a hug. And it was all okay with me.