From kisses and handshakes to bows and nose rubs, we explain greeting customs around the world to help you avoid faux pas in your new home country.
To kiss or not to kiss – that is the question. If you have ever faced this dilemma when moving to a new country and meeting new people, then you aren’t alone. Every culture in the world has its own greeting customs; depending on the occasion and where you are, this can take the form of a hug, handshake, bow, nose rub, kiss on the cheek – or even the lips.
Learning how to greet people is often one of the first lessons expats stumble upon when adapting to a new culture. So, to save you the confusion – and possibly the embarrassment of any social faux pas – we take a look at the interesting ways people greet each other around the world.
A peck (or two) on the cheek
Kissing on the cheek is a common greeting in many cultures, particularly in Europe and Latin America. However, each country has its own unique way of doing it. People in Mexico and Colombia, for example, believe that one kiss is sufficient. In Italy, Hungary, and Brazil, on the other hand, a kiss on each cheek is preferable. And if you happen to find yourself in Ecuador, you might notice that women are greeted with a single kiss, and only on their right cheek.
Speaking of the ladies, when greeting a woman in countries like Poland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, a kiss on the hand is seen as the perfect way to go. This is not only seen as expressing affection, but also respect – and they say romance is dead.
Three is the magic number
In many European countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Slovenia, it is customary for people to greet each other by kissing one another’s cheeks three times alternately, starting with the right.
Meanwhile, France has its own interesting take when it comes to kissing. Of course, we all know the country is famous for its passionate and romantic French kiss. But when meeting and greeting their nearest and dearest, the number of smooches they give depends on where they live.
In Provence, for example, the locals like to exchange three pecks on the cheek. But venture up to Nantes and you will find they go one step further and give four. Such grand signs of affection mean that it can often take a long time to leave a party – especially when there is a considerable guest list!
The air kiss
In some cultures, kissing on the lips is seen as a romantic gesture, but this isn’t always the case. In South Africa and Australia, for example, kissing quickly on the lips with the mouth closed is a common greeting, especially in rural areas.
The air kiss is also a common way to greet one another in the land Down Under. This form of greeting doesn’t involve actual contact and is more an act of making a kissing gesture into the air while brushing cheeks, or in a near miss.
People in Belgium – even the men – are also partial to giving each other one air kiss, and this is also customary in some parts of Italy (except for the north) among people who know each other very well. In Spain, the locals air kiss twice, starting with the right cheek. Men, on the other hand, prefer to shake hands instead.
The ‘Eskimo kiss’
Now this is cute. The ‘Eskimo kiss’, as it was affectionately dubbed by early explorers of the Arctic, refers to the Inuit tradition of pressing one’s nose against the nose, cheek, or forehead of the other person.
The reason for this intimate greeting is due to the fact that the Inuits – the indigenous people in the Northern Arctic – often have little except their nose and eyes exposed when meeting outside. This tradition is also widely practiced among the Mongolian nomads of the Gobi Desert, the Maori tribe of New Zealand, and certain Southeast Asian cultures. These include the Cambodians, Thai, Vietnamese, Bengalis, Laotians, Timor, Sabu, and Ibans.
Interestingly, Arab tribesmen also employ nose kissing as a traditional greeting among members of the same tribe. And in Oman, it is not unusual for men to kiss one another on the nose after a handshake. In Arab countries, men kissing men is actually common practice; it is customary to give a hug, followed by a kiss on the cheek or forehead. In these cultures, however, people avoid kissing someone of the opposite sex, unless they are a close friend or relative.
Alternatives to kissing
The practice of kissing each other is not common among certain cultures in the world. This is particularly true of Asian countries like India and China, where people see it as a sexual expression.
In India, people frown upon kissing each other in public. Instead, they greet each other with namaste; they place their two palms together in front of their chest and bow their head while saying the word ‘namaste’. The locals greet everyone in this way; those younger and older than themselves, as well as friends and even strangers. In Sanskrit, the word is broken into two parts, namah (to bow) and te (you), and translates to ‘I bow to you’. The word namaha can also be literally interpreted as na ma (not mine), which carries the spiritual significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.
Similarly, in Japan men and women greet each other by bowing; this is preferred over a casual handshake or hug. Meanwhile, most African tribes show respect to their Chief by kissing the ground where he has walked, instead of making physical contact. And in Germany, people tend to avoid kissing altogether; they prefer to shake hands if they don’t know each other, or hug if they are friends.
The no kiss rule
In some places, particularly the Middle East, it is illegal for men and women to kiss in public; this act can bring about severe penalties. In Dubai, for example, expats have been prosecuted for public displays of affection. One of the most widely reported cases involved two Britons, Charlotte Adams and Ayman Najafi, who were jailed for a month after an Emirati woman complained they had kissed in public.
Similarly, in Qatar, public displays of affection with the opposite sex can get you into trouble. Kissing and hugging in public, whether it’s with your husband or not, can still cause offense. A peck on the cheek or holding hands with your husband is acceptable though. The laws in Egypt are also strict; the police can fine or imprison you if they see you kissing on the street or they receive complaints from the locals. Only people of the same gender can greet each other by kissing on the cheeks three times.
Although it is not illegal, people in some areas of Vietnam consider showing affection in public a taboo. This is particularly true outside of the main cities of Hanoi and Saigon. People in Indonesia and Thailand also generally frown upon this; their conservative beliefs mean that kissing in public is a major no-no. Holding hands, however, is becoming more acceptable in cosmopolitan areas such as Bangkok.
Extreme laws in the States
Some states in America have some rather intriguing laws when it comes to kissing. For instance, it is illegal for a husband to kiss his wife on Sunday in Hartford, Connecticut. It is also illegal in Indiana for a man with a mustache to “habitually kiss human beings”. Meanwhile, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it is a crime to kiss a stranger. Generally speaking, men in the US shake hands while women greet with a kiss on one or both cheeks. They might also hug if they know the person well.
With this in mind, it always pays to do your research about a country before you travel or move there. This way you can ensure that you respect the local greeting customs and keep yourself out of mischief.
But if you happen to find yourself in Scotland during New Year’s Eve, then feel free to let your hair down. For in this merry land of kilts and bagpipes, it is customary to smooch everyone in the room when the clock strikes midnight. You’ve been warned!