“It may only be the clinging touch of a child’s hand; but there is as much potential sunshine in it for me as there is in a loving glance for others. A hearty handshake or a friendly letter gives me genuine pleasure.”
– Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
It’s one of the most awkward social interactions between two people introduced for the first time—or who have met, briefly, when one offers a handshake while the other goes in for a hug and/or a cheek kiss.
“I try to read the person’s energy—in a split second—before making that decision,” publicist Lorenzo Martone tells the Daily Beast, addingthat his Brazilian upbringing means he has an excuse for heading straight for the cheek: “And always twice—the chic and sexy people I know always kiss twice.” Neither does he care what country he’s in, adding that he carries his puckering protocol wherever he goes, and unless meeting the queen “won’t change my kissing” for anybody.
Other nations that generally offer a couple of cheek kisses are Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Germany, France (though in some provinces may rise to four!) and a handful of Middle Eastern states—but the latter is strictly reserved to between the same sexes. To add to the confusion, there are countries like Belgium, Serbia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Russia where it’s traditional to offer a trio of cheek pecks, while Colombia, Argentina, Chile and the Philippines generally just go for the one. (And wherever, or whenever, you’re about to head in for a friendly kiss, always head right to avoid that most mortifying of greetings—the accidental lip-meet.)
The Philippines is somewhat of outlier on this list also, as many Asian nations are far more formal in their introductions. In China, it’s proper to shake hands—and unlike in the West, limply, and without eye contact—or even clasp your own fingers together and bow, similar to the stance adopted in Japan where the deeper the bow, the greater the sign of respect (a simple nod is the equivalent of “Hi!” and should only be used in informal settings). The quite lovely greeting in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh comprises placing your palms in the prayer position in front of your chest and saying, “Namaste”. Throughout Africa, a handshake is generally the most accepted way to introduce oneself.
“Handshaking is already known to convey a range of information depending on the duration of gesture, its strength and the posture used,” says neurobiologist Noam Sobel, co-author of a 2015 study into the evolution of the handshake, published in eLife. “We argue that it may have evolved to serve as one of a number of ways to sample social chemicals from each other, and it still serves this purpose in a meaningful albeit subliminal way.” One of the most intriguing findings of the study was that people would often subconsciously sniff their hands following a shake—and were even more likely to touch their own face following a greeting with the same gender, perhaps as a way of gauging dominance.
Humans have been offering their hands as a way of greeting for millennia, and some say the gesture originated almost as a peace offering to prove that you possessed no weapon. A ninth-century BC sculpture shows King Shalmaneser III of Assyria shaking hands with a Babylonian leader as a seal of an alliance, while Homer talked of handshakes in the Iliad. Ancient Greeks would often adorn their gravestones with pictures of the deceased shaking hands with a family member, while clasped hands were inscribed on some Roman coins.
Kissing is similarly ancient—and not just limited to humans.Other mammals that practise it in some form—whether using the lips or tongue—include other primates, dogs and cats. Even some insects have been known to engage in antennal locking, possibly as a form of bonding. Many of the earliest writings concerning kissing date from Ancient India—most famously in the Kama Sutra.Written in 440 BC, Herodotus’s Histories—one of the earliest works of literature—discusses how Persian men would greet other men of equal rank with a kiss on the lips, while those lower down the pecking order would receive their peck on the cheek.
“Under the Romans, kissing became more widespread,” writes Dr Neel Burton for Psychology Today. “The Romans kissed their partners or lovers, family and friends, and rulers.” He goes on that they distinguished “a kiss on the hand or cheek (osculum)” from “a kiss on the lips (basium)” and “a deep or passionate kiss (savolium)”.
“In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul instructed followers to ‘salute one another with a holy kiss’,” reveals Andy Scott, in his book One Kiss or Two: In Search of the Perfect Greeting. “And so the ‘holy kiss’ became a common greeting among early Christians and a central part of Catholic ceremony.”
Andy Scott has worked as British diplomat and a United Nations consultant so knows a thing or two about global greetings. His advice? Go with the flow. “One approach is to take the other person’s lead, like dancing,” he tells Conde Nast Traveler. “Going through the ritual and getting it wrong is, to some extent, more important than avoiding it all together.” Embarrassment or awkwardness, he adds, serves as an “important social signal showing you’re aware of that country’s customs”.