Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Kiss Is Just A Kiss

The chocolate version
One? Two? Three? Perhaps none? Right? Left? Right then left? Left then right then back to left? Which scenario is correct? I think one of the most difficult customs for Americans living overseas, particularly in Europe, to adjust to is the practice of kissing friends and even acquaintances when greeting them. (In most cases) I'm not talking about lip to lip engagements but rather air kisses on one's cheek or cheeks.

When we were attending attache school before our first overseas move we spent quite a bit of time talking about kissing as a cultural form of greeting for both women and men alike. Because it simply isn't the cultural norm for most Americans, especially those in uniform, we actually spent time practicing our kissing greetings. I think this came easier for the women in our group as the majority of the men looked physically uncomfortable with the entire exercise. But again, I believe that this discomfort is a product of machismo American culture where a firm handshake and perhaps a slap on the back is more of the norm, since Europeans, both in and out of uniform, seem to be so much more comfortable with the notion.

A single kiss
And just because you are comfortable kiss cheek to cheek kiss greetings doesn't mean you will always get it right. I actually find the whole practice rather sophisticated yet I found myself in more than one uncomfortable head knocking situation where we couldn't coordinate whether it was right then left or left then right. (This proved to be most problematic when standing in receiving lines where I encountered a variety of guests from different cultures and backgrounds). In southeastern Europe, including the Balkans, if felt as though cheek kissing was common practice amongst everyone, young and old, male to male, male to female, and female to female. Whether meeting in one's home or a public place, cheek kissing was a regular sight. It was rare to be walking down the street in Tirana, especially in front of a cafe, and not get caught up in a human traffic jam because everyone was stopping and cheek kissing one another in greeting. And the number of kisses, one, two, or three varied as well. Two became my standard practice going from right to left but after a few mishaps I learned to always be ready for whatever direction and number was thrown my way. Now if I was being greeted by someone from another part of Europe, all bets were off since until I got to know someone better, I never knew what or how many would come my way. Over time I learned that both Romanian and Polish men greeted women with three kisses to the cheek followed by one on the top of the right hand. Who knew?

Now here in Belgium the rules are different from the southern part of the Continent. Whereas triple kisses are exchanged in the Flemish region, here in Wallonia the standard appears to be a single cheek kiss amongst friends. Again, I learned the hard way after being the perpetrator of a double cheek kiss which took the recipient by surprise (and this was after she had initiated the greeting). Apparently it is also less common here for men to kiss men. At least that is what I've been told and in thinking about it I have yet to see it actually happen. Instead hearty handshakes followed by a brisk slap on the back seem to be more of the norm between both young and old men.

So when is a kiss just a kiss? And how many is the correct number? And to whom? I guess it depends upon where you are and where you are coming from.

And a totally different type of KISS

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