by SMelamed

By SARAH MELAMED

For me, a greeting can be an unsynchronized mess; stepping on toes, bumping heads, uncoordinated handshakes. Nothing is more embarrassing than trying to high-five a kisser or going in for a hug when touching is not permitted.

Some people seem to have an innate understanding of body language, or quickly pick up cultural cues. Not me.

As a child living in New York, I was exposed to and learned to appreciate diversity but it also left me confused. Not only were we out of sync with some of the cultural norms of our neighborhood, roles were reversed.

My American father picked up double kissing while studying in Paris but my Israeli mother, who was from a long line of double kissers, dropped the habit.  Their eclectic acquaintances from around the world introduced their own nuances to this social dance; handshakes, bear hugs, a peck on the cheek, a curt nod… At our house the hellos flowed smoothly but less from cultural similarity than long term friendship.

When I moved to Israel I had to learn an entirely new set of rules. Even within a homogenous group of people which Israel is not, age, gender, social standing, religion, familiarity and relationship all affect how a greeting ritual should be performed. Timing is essential and I find waiting for the other’s reaction doesn’t always avoid a faux pas since elders are often greeted first.

In fact, I’ve lost count of how many unsuspecting greeters I left kissing the air. So if I ever meet you, I apologize in advance for any awkwardness.

How easy has it been for you to assimilate the greeting norms of another culture?

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Sarah Melamed is an American food blogger from Israel, interested in ethnic food, culture and history.
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  • http://about.me/anastasia.ashman Anastasia

    back in the usa for the past month, i’ve been befuddling people with my mixed up cultural greetings — lunging unexpectedly, tripping over them, being strangely stand-offish (when i try NOT to do what is coming naturally — that is, double kissing them)….

  • https://twitter.com/romerobv Romero Cavalcanti

    In the Northeast of Brazil, it is common to say “um cheiro” (a smell) as a goodbye. 
    Greetings from Brazil.

  • Amanda

    As a Brit in the Netherlands it took me a while to get used to this kissing as a greeting lark! Going from one kiss (at most – I’m not sure there is a normal way to greet informally in Britain) on the cheek in Britain to three in the Netherlands was confusing to say the least and even now after a decade here I am not entirely comfortable with it – that’s the Britishness in me! I still unsure if the three kisses greeting is applicable sometimes – I know them but well enough for a three kiss greeting? And when my family meet the in-laws – well, it’s almost comedy show material…..

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sarah,
    Your post really speaks to me. After years of going back and forth between countries, and of working with people of different ethnic backgrounds than my own I am completely confused and like you, leave people —or am myself— hanging in limbo half the time. My husband, after his first encounter with the triple kiss ritual in the Netherlands, sowed confusion by adding a bear hug.
    It’s so funny that a hug can be experienced as either too intimate or less so, than all those kisses.
    Just the other day I ran into an older Dutch friend in a store in Seattle. I realized that the cheek to cheek/ half hug was neither this nor that and a surprise to both of us. When I see her in another setting, at the Dutch Lit Book Group we kiss twice (not trice)!

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Judith, it is a topsy-turvy world alright! The idea of ‘formal (air!) kissing’ hard to accept when you’re from a culture that sees full-body contact (in a hug) as less intimate…

  • http://twitter.com/joannemstein JoAnne Stein

    In Russia I got used to exchanging kisses on the cheek (usually one, sometimes up to three) and found it to be a nice way to greet friends and show affection as people rarely do anything like that in the US. But I admit it did feel a bit awkward at first, as if I were a “poser” trying to act cool or posh and European. I still laugh a little to myself when I see teens doing it as I can’t imagine American teenagers doing so.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Exactly, JoAnne -> the danger of being regarded as a ‘poseur’ by people who don’t know why your instincts have shifted away from their cultural norm….

  • http://armenianodar.wordpress.com/ Myrthe

    I got used to double kissing in Armenia. I think the only times I get confused now is with non-Armenians who do something else than double-kiss (including people from my native Holland).

    The one thing I still don’t always get right, even after ten years in Armenia, is shaking hands with men. Not all men in Armenia will shake a woman’s hand; as far as I know that’s a sign of respect (there are also many who do shake a woman’s hand or, depending on the relationship, will double kiss a woman). In my experience, whether a man will shake a woman’s hand has very little to do with his age, where he is from (city or village), whether he is traditional or more modern or anything else, so for me it often remains guesswork (unless of course I know the man already). To avoid awkward situations when I am not sure how a man will greet me, I usually hold back a second or something and let him take the initiative in whether he wants to shake hands with me or not. Still, the timing isn’t always right, so sometimes it ends up being a bit awkward anyway.

  • http://theinternationalmama.blogspot.com Barbara

    Nice post! I can totally relate. After living in France for nearly 10 years I regularly embarass myself when in the US by going in for the second kiss, when my kiss-ee is already turning away. Or I try to kiss as my intended goes for the hug. After returning to France, I embarrass myself all over again, by trying to hug kissers (which *really* takes the French aback!)Maybe in another 10 years I’ll get it right….

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    Thanks for this, Sarah! I guess I’m middling on assimilating the greeting norms, meaning I do them properly half the time. The other half of the time is a mixture of what I feel like doing or make the mistake of doing.

    In Japan I was better than my high school colleagues at bowing after 11 years trained by Japanese judo teachers.

    There was more hugging in California than New York, and in LA sometimes a one-cheek kiss to other women friends.

    When I met my first princess (in Malaysia) I did that wrong even though I’d been coached, just because it didn’t feel natural. Even before her, when I met my first Malay woman I mistook her weak finger-shake and pull-away as disinterest instead of tradition and a touch to the heart that it was. The ramifications lasted for years between us as I misinterpreted how she felt about me.

    But when I first read your post the memories that came up were double kissing (in the Turkish style) a real estate agent I was working with in Istanbul, when actually I would have been better off shaking his hand to keep the professional setting. I also made this mistake with someone’s housecleaner, which was a big surprise to her, and me when I realized she was not a relative I’d be seeing a lot but instead an employee I would not be greeting that way again.

    In kiss-greeting someone else’s employee as she introduced me to a young woman who would be working for me, my double kiss set the stage for the young woman to see me as “family” (whose belongings were also hers to use, hers to remove from my house) instead of as the more distant and sovereign employer I wanted to be.

    In Turkey there’s also the handshake-pull into a double kiss. I end up doing that with older men. Here in Istanbul I greet other Americans with the Turkish double kisses, but when I see them on non-European/non-Asian soil, we’re all confused what to do and a double-kiss instead of a hug seems precious.

  • Anonymous

    I was never a kiss greeter until I moved to Argentina. Now it feels right. We kiss greet people we’ve just met, especially as a woman. But when I go back to the US, I want to do the kiss greeting, but the body language of Americans just says not to do it. I definitely miss it.

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    I find the awkward thing is that the greeting ritual keeps changing, especially among my nieces. I think I’ve got it down, kiss on each cheek, then a hug and they add an extra hug causing near headbutts.
    Being a foreigner also leaves some people uncertain how to approach me, should they just shake hands or go for the normal greeting. There’s a moment of uncertainty as we both pause waiting for the other to make the first move…

    Sinosoul, the world is built on personal interactions. The ability to express yourself, to build relationships, friendships, to be professional can be thrown in doubt by messing up the first step. It’s true for private individuals, it’s true for diplomats and statespeople. I don’t think e+H ever claimed to be the place that would save the world, but aims to illuminate aspects of the multitude of cultures it contains. Imagine how much easier we’d get along by knowing each other a little better…

    • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah Melamed

      A friend from a triple kissing culture (Lebanon) told me that my confusion over single or double kisisng was nothing compared to his. I also noticed that norms change. My Polish mother-in-law has started to double kiss. When I first met her I’d go in for the double kiss and she’d leave me kissing the air, now I often return the favor.

      • Anonymous

        LOL

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    I find the awkward thing is that the greeting ritual keeps changing, especially among my nieces. I think I’ve got it down, kiss on each cheek, then a hug and they add an extra hug causing near headbutts.
    Being a foreigner also leaves some people uncertain how to approach me, should they just shake hands or go for the normal greeting. There’s a moment of uncertainty as we both pause waiting for the other to make the first move…

    Sinosoul, the world is built on personal interactions. The ability to express yourself, to build relationships, friendships, to be professional can be thrown in doubt by messing up the first step. It’s true for private individuals, it’s true for diplomats and statespeople. I don’t think e+H ever claimed to be the place that would save the world, but aims to illuminate aspects of the multitude of cultures it contains. Imagine how much easier we’d get along by knowing each other a little better…

  • Anonymous

    Is this post suppose to be punny? In the current state of the world, I think we have better things to worry about? Wanna double kiss me? SURE! as long as you don’t have hepatitis.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Intersections of culture and the dynamics between people is not only what we do best here at expat+HAREM, each discussion can be relevant to the wider world.

      I enjoyed Sarah’s post immensely and the first time I read it had a series of experiences jostle in my memory, ready to be counted…and the longer-term ramifications of those bungled initial meetings also began to surface. It’s been instructive for me, and I hope for others too.

      A question for you SinoSoul: Have you not found that first impressions are often lasting even if they’re presented inaccurately, or received that way? How might those interpersonal misperceptions effect “the current state of the world”?

      • Lauren Brown

         What homeboy means is that while the gesture has good intentions, the idea of sharing everybody’s germs is not.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Intersections of culture and the dynamics between people is not only what we do best here at expat+HAREM, each discussion can be relevant to the wider world.

      I enjoyed Sarah’s post immensely and the first time I read it had a series of experiences jostle in my memory, ready to be counted…and the longer-term ramifications of those bungled initial meetings also began to surface. It’s been instructive for me, and I hope for others too.

      A question for you SinoSoul: Have you not found that first impressions are often lasting even if they’re presented inaccurately, or received that way? How might those interpersonal misperceptions effect “the current state of the world”?

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Intersections of culture and the dynamics between people is not only what we do best here at expat+HAREM, each discussion can be relevant to the wider world.

      I enjoyed Sarah’s post immensely and the first time I read it had a series of experiences jostle in my memory, ready to be counted…and the longer-term ramifications of those bungled initial meetings also began to surface. It’s been instructive for me, and I hope for others too.

      A question for you SinoSoul: Have you not found that first impressions are often lasting even if they’re presented inaccurately, or received that way? How might those interpersonal misperceptions effect “the current state of the world”?

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Intersections of culture and the dynamics between people is not only what we do best here at expat+HAREM, each discussion can be relevant to the wider world.

      I enjoyed Sarah’s post immensely and the first time I read it had a series of experiences jostle in my memory, ready to be counted…and the longer-term ramifications of those bungled initial meetings also began to surface. It’s been instructive for me, and I hope for others too.

      A question for you SinoSoul: Have you not found that first impressions are often lasting even if they’re presented inaccurately, or received that way? How might those interpersonal misperceptions effect “the current state of the world”?

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Intersections of culture and the dynamics between people is not only what we do best here at expat+HAREM, each discussion can be relevant to the wider world.

      I enjoyed Sarah’s post immensely and the first time I read it had a series of experiences jostle in my memory, ready to be counted…and the longer-term ramifications of those bungled initial meetings also began to surface. It’s been instructive for me, and I hope for others too.

      A question for you SinoSoul: Have you not found that first impressions are often lasting even if they’re presented inaccurately, or received that way? How might those interpersonal misperceptions effect “the current state of the world”?

  • http://turkishtravelblog.com Natalie – Turkish Travel Blog

    I can not do it easily as I do not like physical contact anyway. Here in Turkey, kissing on both checks, I hate it, especially when it is a hot summers day and the other person is sweating like a pig in a slaughter house.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Natalie, ooooh, you remind me of one particularly damp reception line at a July wedding…..

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