Greeting someone from our own country is hard enough for Americans. Do you shake hands? Kiss on the cheek? Hug? Awkwardly side hug so you make zero contact with the other person’s chest? But when you add in other cultures there is just no chance at getting it right. People from France kiss on each cheek when they greet each other. People from the UK tend to kiss on just one cheek. The Swiss? Three times. And when you live in Geneva, a part of Switzerland surrounded by the French, greetings are fraught with danger.
Nowhere is this more evident than at a party. We recently went to a party with people from France, Switzerland, Ohio, Argentina and Australia to name a few (only in Geneva). I spent much of the party kissing cheeks and shaking hands and hoping to not actually kiss anyone’s mouth. Some people are able to carry off these greetings without even acknowledging the awkwardness. Others just own up to it. “I’m going for two kisses,” one guy announced as he greeted me. I was so relieved to find some Americans who were eager to just shake hands that we ended up talking for five minutes about how relieved we were to just shake hands.
Once at a grocery store I ran into an American woman I know. Since we are in Switzerland, we greeted each other with kisses on the cheek but since she’s an American, three felt excessive so I stopped at two.The other woman went for a third kiss. At that exact moment, Annie made a screeching noise so I looked down and to my right. The result? I head butted the other woman. At the nice grocery store. I often assume two kisses is plenty and as a result have actually ended up kissing people on the mouth when they went for three kisses. It’s important to work on speed in ending the greetings: kiss, kiss and quickly pull your head back so they cannot make contact with lips.
Even the kids recognize there is something about greetings that is important. Forest has a friend named Max, the grandson of our former landlady. When Max would visit his grandmother, he and Forest would play in the garden. Once when Max came over, he and Forest ran to each other, arms wide open, shouting one another’s names. “Forest!” “Max!” But when they reached each other, they did not know what to do. Max went to greet Forest with two kisses and Forest just wanted a hug. I believe they ended up in a pile on the grass.
I appreciate the warmth of greeting here. It can make me feel very sophisticated when I greet someone with such a complicated gesture as three kisses. But at the same time, there is nothing more anxiety-producing than trying to read the situation before greeting. “Is this person Swiss? French? Just a Brit speaking French?” Perhaps we should all wear our preferences on nametags at parties. “Hello. My name is Jane and I like handshakes. Thanks.”