Public displays of affection in Europe

Let’s get physical: Europe and public displays of affection

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Europeans have vastly different 'langauges of love' - what's the social norm for public and private intimacy where you live?

What can you and your partner do - and not do - in public? And what's the etiquette for what you do, and when you do it, in private?

In public...

In some parts of Europe, like France and Spain, romance seems to be part of the everyday culture and being demonstrative in public is seen as perfectly natural: people kiss and hug when they meet in the street; friends walk around arm-in-arm or holding hands; couples kiss and caress in the street - and it's nothing out of the ordinary. In other parts of Europe - like Germany and parts of Switzerland - people are much more formal, shaking hands on meeting and having little physical contact in public at all.

This Northern Europe/southern Europe division when it comes to physical contact is even reflected in the language. The French verb embrasser means ‘to kiss' and is, as it sounds, a full-on, passionate deep kiss enjoyed by lovers wrapped in each other's arms. Biser also means ‘to kiss' but it's more of a greeting kiss, on the cheek. The Spanish besar is similar to biser. These are all soft, languorous sounding words. In contrast, the German and Dutch küssen sounds more a little more abrupt and business-like.

To many Americans, Europe (including the UK) can seem quite liberal when it comes to couples kissing and caressing in public places - that is, couples do it, without everyone calling out ‘get a room!' But even in places like France, where people are generally very demonstrative publically, the intimate kissing and caressing which may be acceptable in Paris, is not always going to be tolerated in more rural areas.

Kissing in Europe


In the world's most romantic city, you'll see couples kissing and fondling each other all over the place, people kiss acquaintances when they meet them in the street and you even shake hand with the plumber when he comes to fix your leaky pipe: the French are definitely touchy-feely. So in Paris (and other major cities) anything goes; elsewhere, be more restrained. Incidentally, while the rest of the world has been ‘French' kissing for years, the French have never officially had their own word for it, until May 2013 when the slang term galocher (‘to kiss with tongues') was included in a French dictionary for the first time.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, while it's usual for women to greet friends and relatives with three ‘social' kisses on (or near) the cheek, and for men to greet women in the same way (men get a handshake), couples (both straight and gay and lesbian) can be openly affectionate with each other but more intimate French kissing in public is less acceptable.Famously very liberal, Dutch immigration authorities showed potential immigrants a video of gay men kissing in a park in preparation for the Dutch civic integration exam.


When you meet in Germany, relatives and good friends may kiss each other on the cheek when they meet while everyone - men and women - else gets a handshake. Social kissing is gaining in popularity though, to the alarm of the Knigge Society, a social etiquette group, who called for it to be banned in the workplace, citing that a ‘social distance zone' of 23 cm should always be observed! You'll see couples holding hands, or hugging or with their arms around each other but deep, intimate kissing in public is not common.


Spanish men and women greet each other with kisses all around (including man to man). While the age of consent is just 13, sex scenes are common on TV, mainstream papers contain ‘adult' adverts, lesbians and gay men can marry and the population seems very liberal, outside of large cities, people are quite straight-laced, with couples only living together after marriage and gays and lesbians staying mostly in the closet. So kiss openly in Madrid but not in deepest Galicia.


Belgians - men and women - may give friends and relatives a kiss on the cheek and everyone else a handshake. Couples can openly show their affection for one another, but mainly keep the more intimate stuff private.


In Switzerland, public displays of affection are more common in the French-speaking areas of the country, rather than in the German-speaking areas, which tend to be more formal.  Don't grope each other in public, it won't go down well.


In the UK, while younger, female, or middle and upper class Brits have followed the European trend for social kissing when meeting friends and relatives, others may stiffen and stand back if you swoop in for a peck. Couples kissing and caressing in public is generally tolerated (depending on the time, place and exactly what level of intimacy is on display). Gay and lesbian couples can openly hold hands and give each other brief kisses but outside of gay-friendly places like London, Manchester and Brighton, might not want to indulge in much more than that in public.

...and in private

Do Europeans have the 3-date rule? Aah, the famous, if you're going to have sex with someone it'll happen on the third date rule (does anyone actually keep to that ‘rule'?).There is no such rule in Europe. It's up to you when you have sex with a partner, although be careful whom you kiss in France; if you kiss (and we're not talking about a peck on the cheek here), it means that you're ‘in a relationship'.


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3 Comments To This Article

  • Pepe posted:

    on 21st October 2014, 14:38:32 - Reply

    This is my take on greetings in Spain:
    - A single kiss indicates you are family or boyfriend/girlfriend. You kiss your parents, siblings, cousins, ...only once (one cheek). Between brothers a hug would do, too. Family, opposite sex, always kiss, again, once.
    - You kiss a friend's children (one cheek) but you shake hands if they are older.
    - Two kisses (two cheeks) indicate familiarity, friendship with somebody of the opposite sex.
    - Two male friends might hug after a long time, otherwise a tap on the shoulder or a handshake.
    - Men don't kiss (unless family). Two women friends kiss (two cheeks)
    - In a business environment or people you don't know: a handshake, no matter which sex.
  • Mac posted:

    on 9th October 2014, 18:27:05 - Reply

    "Biser" doesn't exist, although "bisou" does. if you mean "to kiss", then you meant to say "baiser". Be careful, though, as "baiser" also means to shag.
  • carrico posted:

    on 8th October 2014, 16:40:11 - Reply

    Got Europeanized very quickly in the pubs. Unlike America, there's little space, and you quickly become intimate. If you've got a good bartender, he/she quickly steers you into a conversation with someone sitting near. The Dutch dudes are soon laughing in your face. i remember once saying excuse me after hitting the head and snaking through the crowd. "It is not necessary," another old goat told me.