And no, I do not mean sticking your tongue in someone’s throat. What I want to talk about is a basic hello – hello kisses in the places like France, Luxembourg, Belgium and more?
I grew up in the environment where people upon meeting neither kissed nor hugged. A handshake was suitable at the most on very official occasions like a receiving a diploma. I remember once my old friend who was a very emotional and let’s say, a full-of-life type of person, decided to give me a hug upon meeting me and that completely threw me off. My body tensed and I wanted her to stop touching me.
But that changed upon moving to the states. There I learned how to hug and say “I love you” to friends, boyfriends and parents. I even brought this tradition back home and eventually we became a hugging family as well. “I love you” still remains a big deal and it is easier to be said in English but in my mother-tongue, I almost break my tongue before I can even mutter it. This is something precious, not to be overused, for sure. In Sweden like any other Western countries that watch way too much of the American television, hugging became a norm too. It is quite recent as I heard but we hug friends, colleagues, classmates. However, if you are not sure, better stick with a handshake because Swedes tend to be reserved at first, some call it “cold” but I disagree.
Then in Luxembourg, oh boy!, people kiss. Not once (I could easily do that!), not twice (getting harder) but three times in the cheeks! The even bigger problem is that one is expected not only to kiss the same-sex friends but also those of the opposite-sex and also those who you just met! Strangers, especially French, not in particular Luxembourgish, kiss the same way as friends would do, and that completely threw me off. Moreover, it requires lots of practice to become good at it. You must consider timing, quickness, make a decision whether to touch cheeks or actually kiss, make a sound, try not to hit anything with a nose when quickly switching cheeks, and one of which I am often paranoic of, trying not to breath while kissing in case my breath is not too fresh. By now, I kissed many people in the French “hello” way but never felt a smell of anyone’s breath, so perhaps I am too paranoic. But the strangest thing is that French consider a hug to be more intimate than a kiss, when for me it is completely opposite – I can hug any time, but kiss only special people even if it is on a cheek.
I never want to be rude so I try to embrace all the cultures and their traditions but sometimes it can be hard. Last year when my manager had a birthday, I proposed to the colleagues in Belgium to get him a cake. The response was that in Belgium a birthday person should bring his/her own cake and in return others give him or her three birthday kisses. Wait.. what? I still ended up buying him a cake (on my own) and probably upsetting some of my colleagues for breaking the rules, but I drew the line to the kisses. Kissing, even hugging a superior at work seems completely inappropriate to me. I can be flexible to many things, even was not bothered by naked colleagues in a Swedish sauna which is very typical in Sweden and in Germany I heard as well, but that’s them being naked, not me. Kissing superior I cannot do so instead to be safe, I always immediately stick my hand out and offer a strong handshake instead. Or sometimes I just waive.
But the hardest time comes when traveling because I get confused. The habit is to kiss people on cheeks by now but I would not want to freak anyone out if I accidentally did it in a wrong country. So before I say “hello”, I always hesitate. Where am I, who am I saying hello to? Did I just hug and kiss someone? (oops!) One second to make a decision and if I made a wrong one, did I just offend someone?