One Kiss or Two? Tackling the Greetings Minefield
by Andy Scott
Andy Scott has greeted people in more than 60 countries. After gaining a PhD in History from Cambridge and holding visiting fellowships at Yale, he joined the Cabinet Office in 2009. He has since then served as a British diplomat in Libya and Sudan and been a consultant to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and is now a Conflict and Stabilisation Adviser to the UK Government.
It’s the morning of 16 June 2008. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, goes to meet the U.S. President, George W. Bush, who has just arrived in Belfast on a tour of Europe. A horde of press is gathered to capture the moment. These are two of the most powerful men in the world, two international statesmen, two sides of the most enduring alliance in modern history. A grinning Brown walks forward, stretches out his arm and goes for a regular handshake. But Bush, also smiling, goes in diagonally for a hip-hop style clasp, catching Brown off guard. The result is an awkward tangle with three of Brown’s fingers sliding up Bush’s shirt. Photos are immediately beamed across the world showing the act in full detail, as two personalities and cultures collide. Back home, an already struggling Brown is mocked for “losing his grip.”
At around the same time, I am standing in a bar in London, waiting for my blind date, Penny, to show up. A girl walks in fitting her description and smiles. I step forward and offer my right hand while simultaneously going to give her a kiss on the cheek. I’d firmly decided on one kiss, which feels forced enough as it is — two’s just pretentious. Happily, Penny reciprocates. But as I pull back, she’s left hanging, waiting for a second. I find myself leaning back in. But it’s too late and I catch the corner of her mouth as she pulls away. We laugh it off, but my nerves are now in overdrive and I find it hard to relax. There is no second date.
There’s no doubt: Greetings matter. In some shape or form, nearly every encounter begins with one. Whether meeting a fellow leader or blind date, we convey our feelings towards each other with our greetings, reaffirming our ties or creating new ones. Through these little rituals, we signal our relative status, perhaps by lowering our body or tightening our handshake. And it’s through these initial moments of interaction that we create first impressions, which we all know can be so important, however much we try to resist them. So how is it that something so fundamental and routine can be so confusing and awkward? How is that we so often end up in a muddle of tangled hands and botched kisses, feeling embarrassed and wishing that we could rewind life by a few seconds?
Being British, part of me wondered if all this came down to my culture. After all, we’re renowned for being reserved and aloof — a “low-contact” people, as the experts put it. Despite being famous for our grand ceremonies and regarding ourselves as standard bearers of etiquette, when it comes to our daily interactions — especially our greetings — we can get completely befuddled, as if we’re constantly working them out for the first time. But while we might be world leaders when it comes to awkwardness, it’s clear that we’re not alone. Even the French, perhaps the biggest handshakers and kissers of all, have their difficulties. For some, the social kiss (la bise) has become a source of anguish rather than pride. And while the British might agonize over whether it’s one kiss or two, in parts of France it’s anywhere up to five. There’s even a kissing map. In the United States, where everyone can seem so confident in their interactions, there’s been a recent backlash against all the hugging in high schools, while the new trend in some workplaces to kiss on the lips is making many people shudder. In Germany, one etiquette society has become so bothered by all the kissing at work that they’ve called for a complete ban, regarding it as a “form of terror.” And it’s not just a problem of an uptight West. In Japan, knowing how low to bow can result in lots of bobbing, while an old housemate from India told me that she struggled growing up, particularly when it came to knowing when to kiss her grandmother’s foot.
And all this seems to be getting worse. “I feel permanently uncomfortable these days,” complains a high-flying City lawyer in an internet post, reflecting the mood of our times. Of course, part of it comes down to the fact that our societies are becoming more multicultural, so for many of us culture clash, and all of the confusion that goes with it, is a daily occurrence. But in recent years, people-watchers in the United Kingdom and the United States have observed something else that’s playing into our unease: greetings inflation — an arms race of lips and limbs, whereby our ways of saying hello are getting more intimate. Where a nod was once enough, we now shake hands; where we once shook hands, we now hug; where we once hugged, we now add a kiss, and so on. Seen positively, all of this perhaps shows that we’re loosening up, shaking off the cramped codes of etiquette leftover from the Victorians. But it’s also creating extra expectation, compounding our confusion and awkwardness. In fact, in the extreme, rather than opening up our interactions, which is one of their key functions, greetings have become a barrier — the very act of saying hello has become reason not to say hello. Rather than facing up to the kissing conundrum, we can find ourselves turning the other way.
All of which set me off on a quest. I wanted to find some failsafe rules and guidelines to help up us out of doubt and trouble — to resolve all our greetings dilemmas, even to find the perfect greeting. I consulted the etiquette advisors and body language gurus — people who have made a career out of telling the rest of us how to behave. But I soon found problems with this approach. For all that they claim a special authority, etiquette advisors are largely capturing and codifying the behaviors that we already do, often trying to keep up or obsessing about class. And while body language gurus might tell us to strengthen our grip and maintain good eye contact, all this starts to fall apart when we meet people from different cultures. Across many parts of the world, a soft handshake is the norm, while direct eye contact can be taken as a sign of disrespect.
So, in my search, I took a different route, wondering if I could get at the core of what our greetings are all about. While our rituals vary hugely across cultures, the fact that we all do them suggests that they are rooted deep within our evolutionary past and have a common origin. Looking at the rest of the animal world, we can see that other species have their own special rituals when meeting each other, even if they don’t get into such a muddle about them. In fact, if we look at our closest relatives — chimpanzees — we see that they share our most common greetings. They hug, kiss, and hold hands. Others animals get more intimate. Male Guinea baboons may handle each other’s genitals (diddling as it’s known in the scientific community), while bonobos, which are as close to us as chimpanzees, may have sex. For animals that live in communities where members come and go, and depend on each other, the point of these physical rituals is pretty obvious: to update and reaffirm relationships.
But while greetings are a symbol of sociality, they also reflect the other side of the animal world: the potential for competition and aggression. Without this darker side, greetings wouldn’t be necessary. When male baboons put their reproductive future on the line, it can be seen as the ultimate expression of trust. Likewise, when chimpanzees kiss, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position, what’s been characterized as a sort of controlled bite. Looking across the animal world, where cooperation and competition are never far away, greetings perform a vital function, serving as a means of bond testing — what the experts call appeasement rituals or pacifiers.
And so it is with humans (or at least we still carry the legacy of our evolutionary heritage). We might have split off in different directions, forming different cultures and developing a whole range of weird and wacky customs, but fundamentally the purpose of our greetings remains the same: we’re reaffirming and testing our bonds. Each time we shake hands, hug, kiss, or bow we are putting ourselves in vulnerable positions, testing our relationships. Unfortunately, having grown such big brains and, with them, a heightened level of consciousness, we end up questioning what we’re doing and getting into all sorts of confusion.
So where does all of this put us in solving all of our greetings dilemmas? Sadly, even after delving deep into our evolutionary past and discovering some common origins, when it comes to my day-to-day interactions I can still get as muddled as ever, misjudging handshakes and missing kisses. In the end, there’s just too much going on in our greetings to come up with a simple set of rules. As well as the nature of our relationships, they reflect the culture we’re from and times we find ourselves in, not to mention us as individuals, our personalities, and changing moods.
That said, with the aid of various academics and their findings, I’ve come up with six basic principles that can help guide us through these first moments of interaction or at least console us when we get in a muddle:
- Greetings are important. Beyond reaffirming and testing our bonds, it’s through our greetings that we acknowledge each other as social entities and open ourselves up to each other. All of which explains why a snub can hurt so much and why we neglect them at our peril.
- Be wary of our judgements. We all like to think that we’re great judges, but in truth, as the social psychologists tell us, we’re also prone to being guided by irrelevant information and irrational biases. So, while we might make some big deductions from the strength of someone’s handshake, we should at least realize that there’s nothing universal about it. In short, we need to recognize that our brains are susceptible to mental shortcuts before giving into them. Though there may be no harm in strengthening your grip if, in the words of one of the most influential etiquette guides, Emily Post, it feels like a “miniature boiled pudding.”
- Don’t try too hard. While it’s important to have an understanding of the different customs of different cultures — mostly to help keep our judgements in check — if we try too hard to fit in, we risk looking like an imposter. We might appreciate it when people make an effort to embrace our culture, but we also recognize that it can take a lifetime to learn all of the quirks and absurdities that bind us. So, while it’s often best to go with the flow, there’s no point pretending that we’re something we’re not.
- Keep it open. There are few aspects to greetings or body language that are universal, but as a rule we are looking for signals we can trust. So, it’s a good idea to make our approach with an open posture and intentions clear (which is easier said than done, if we’re full of doubt). To reduce the uncertainty, it can be helpful to prepare the way with an outstretched hand if we’re going for a handshake or open arms for a hug, so we don’t spring any sudden surprises.
- Reciprocation rules. As with most things in life, we tend to notice when there is a mismatch in our greetings. We feel annoyed if someone doesn’t say hello back or return our well-being inquiry, and are conscious when our physical rituals get out of sync, whether it’s the number of kisses or strength of a handshake. All this equalizing helps to build a rapport, but it also gets at something more fundamental: our sense of fairness. If we don’t reciprocate in kind, it suggests either breakdown of etiquette or difference in status.
- Don’t worry if it goes wrong. This may sound like an empty reassurance, but when it comes to our social blunders, we should always keep in mind protagonist disease and the spotlight effect. People are less focussed on us than we think, mostly worrying about what others think of them. And there’s also the fact that a bit of awkwardness and embarrassment can be a good thing. When things go wrong, it’s our way of showing that we recognize that we’ve violated certain social conventions. We generally trust people more if they announce their uncertainty and mistakes rather than trying to cover them up.
In the end, like most things in life, our greetings reflect the fact that we humans are an odd bunch. We remain lumbered with our evolutionary heritage, yet have the mental powers to reflect on it and choose our own path. All of which might not solve our greetings dilemmas, but we can at least appreciate them more and take it easier on ourselves when we mess up.