The Insane World of Greetings: Handshakes, Hugs, and Kisses

Freshman year in high school I was labeled "anti-hug" (I’ve never recovered) because I didn’t want to cater to the utterly insane American practice (always with girls, sometimes with guys) of hugging someone when you meet them and when you say goodbye. I looked forward to business meetings, a reprise from such social awkwardness due to the dominance of the handshake. No questions ask, shake hands at beginning, shake hand at the end. The pitfalls are easy to avoid: don’t offer a dead fish (ie, make it firm) and don’t put out your hand too early. A premature shake — done when conversation is still going — often leads to yet another shake before you part ways, undoubtedly a damper on an otherwise outstanding chit chat.

So when I hear guys like Donald Trump write off the hand shake as a waste of time and haven for germs I say, "Yo, Donny, be thankful. It ain’t nothing compared to high school, and not even close to what our European friends have to go through."

If you want to understand the maze of possible handshake / hug greetings by people under age 25, check out this hilarious CollegeHumor article, complete with graphical illustrations. From personal experience, there’s no worse feeling than going "for a pound" (leaving a clenched fist out after a shake) and the other person not responding with a pound themselves right until you drop your fist right as they go to touch it. Race, as always, complicates matters. A white-to-white shake is usually different than a white-to-black, or black-to-black.Dudegreetings_shake_variation_1

After visiting 10 European countries I can safely say, however, that these kinds of challenges don’t even compare to what the poor Spanish and French have to go through. Kissing both sides of the cheek still rules the day. "Kissing" is imprecise: you touch your cheek against the other person’s and then make a kissing sound with your lips. How bizarre is that? Most Europeans I met don’t find it worth the effort, but do it because they have to. They also have their gripes about the American system, though. Imagine how it feels to walk into a meeting with gung-ho Americans and receive the ultimate symbol of business affection: the bear hug, a full body wrap where both people slap their big, sloppy hands against each other’s back.

My wish is the world would evolve toward two very simple level of greetings, whether it be social or business: if you meet a stranger or a weak relationship it’s a simple handshake. If you’re closer to the person you use your other arm to give a half-hug or a squeeze on the upper arm/lower shoulder.

12 Responses to The Insane World of Greetings: Handshakes, Hugs, and Kisses

  1. Aggie says:

    Although it might have been a regional thing, I never encountered hugging in the U.S. until after the 1970s. I first encountered hugging in Mexico in 1969. After having a hug-free childhood, it was difficult to deal with all that hugging–everyone hugged everyone. In the western U.S., hugging really seemed to take off in the 1980s. I’ve never managed to get used to it.

    The last time I encountered one of my Mexican cousins (in the 1990s), I was prepared for a bear hug, but she gave me the fake kiss the air by each cheek greeting. I’m not sure if that has replaced bear hugs in Mexico, but it is quite annoying.

    I had one Japanese friend in college who returned from a brief vacation in Japan and said he was never going back because he could no longer tolerate all the bowing.

    In other words, in my half century on earth, greetings have gone through phases. Maybe you can create your own phase of more constrained civility.

  2. Yeah, all the bowing in Japan — and knowing how low to bow for each person with respect to age and position within a company…. it really gets to be a bit much. Fortunately, the Japanese don’t expect a foreigner to know these things, so I’m able to get by!

  3. saint says:

    Growing up in Asia we are generally hug-free and kiss-free, even with really good friends. It sucks! I prefer our societies to have a little physical expression of warmth, a little more touching.

  4. Tammy says:

    lol im asian, and my mom don’t even hug or kiss my aunts when we visited vietnam. They havent seen each other in ages and ya not much physical interaction.

    With my friends here, hi *hug* bye *hug* I’m still trying to get use to all the hugging, I’m getting the hang of handhshaking tho. Hi, smile, and firm handshake :P works well with strangers first time meetings

  5. Nick B. says:

    The diversity of greetings just ads to the diversity of mankind. This is something you should enjoy while traveling.

  6. Chris Yeh says:

    Ben, Ben, Ben….

    Scientific research shows that hugs have positive health benefits (link to news.bbc.co.uk).

    That being said, the research is based on couples hugging, not business acquaintances, so I think your stance won’t harm your health too much.

    Of course, perhaps the European air kiss has some hitherto unquantified health benefits that we should investigate. Either that, or it gives European guys an excuse to get closer to women.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Chris — not only was that “research” based on couples, but only 38 couples! My guess is the National Foundation for the Advancement of Hugging was behind this “study.”

    On a separate note, could some loyal reader look up the history of the European kissing routine? Could be interesting to trace its evolution towards present insanity.

  8. Wendy Geise says:

    As an American living in Costa Rica, I can so relate to this topic. Here you kiss the person you are facing on the left side. I feel a bit strange doing this with someone I just met, and may never see again. And sometimes with people I see all the time it seems silly as well. But you do it anyways because that is what is expected.

  9. Tommy says:

    Why can’t we just do it like the volcans. Hand sign and live long and prosper or not even the live long and prosper part just the hand sign that would be great :)

  10. Shefaly says:

    I am guessing you guys have less leeway than girls in most cultures. If we signal that all we want is a hand-shake then you would be advised not to move in for a kiss, not even in Europe. But then again, as an Indian, I think why not just fold your hands and say ‘namaste’? You keep your germs to yourself, I keep mine to myself. You don’t violate my personal space, I don’t violate yours. And we have greeted each other alright.

  11. Jalanda says:

    Hey Fellow Non-Handshaker Enthusiasts!

    I hate shaking hands. I created this “no handshaking” lapel pin that actually does the trick. I don’t have to explain as much anymore. Check it out. I’ll send you one for free if you like. Just email me. J

    Here’s to hoping that others will embrace your choice to not shake hands and end this archaic custom. You will no longer be thought of as a germ freak. You won’t have to say a word–just point. People will see your pin and and instantly know that you aren’t just discriminating against them, but you prefer to not shake anyone’s hands.

  12. Suddenly hug your partner in a romantic way. Switch to a little dance while turning on romantic music and then gently start kissing.I’ll have a warm and romantic moment.

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