6: handshakes, hugs and kisses

I have an ongoing greeting-based issue. Where I’m from it’s very clear what the protocol is when you meet someone new. You shake their hand, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, or they are a man or a woman. If you are greeting someone you know, you only hug them if they are a good friend and you’ve not seen them for a while. Cheek kissing only happens when you greet your family, or little old ladies.
But in London, because it’s a melting pot of cultures and different norms, greetings and introductions can be a bit fraught. Some people kiss in greeting, and sometimes some people kiss when introduced. Some people do a single kiss, some do double – continental style. Hugs proliferate in non-work situations, where I find myself hugging people I have only met once at a party and whose names I can’t remember. And the handshake is not really a female action.
Someone advised me once, that the only way to cope with the multiplicity of greetings options, is to decide what you want to do and then do it forthrightly. If you want to shake someone’s hand, put it out decisively to be shaken. If you want to only kiss one cheek, pick which side you’re going for and do it decisively. And so on.
But for several reasons this doesn’t really work in practice, because, for example, I always put my hand out to be shaken, and this is just taken as an invitation for the person I’m meeting to take hold of it and then pull in for a kiss on the cheek. If a kiss is unavoidable, I try to keep it to one, but if the other person is decisively going for two this just makes for an awkward moment.
I was introduced to a Fifth Gear presenter, who had called into the office for a chat and to talk about his new baby. I shook his hand, although I got a strange look for being so formal. We got talking about the messages of handshakes and greetings in the office – ‘power handshakes’ and how Barack Obama put his arm around Gordon Brown’s shoulders to demonstrate his greater power – and then we got talking about handshakes versus kisses. ‘In the north,’ I said jokingly, ‘if you kiss someone you have to marry them.’ I then went on to say I don’t understand people who do the whole kissing thing with people they’ve only just met. ‘Save it til at least the second meeting,’ I said.
The conversation continued and then I got up to head out for lunch. I turned and said, ‘It was lovely to meet you.’ No handshake, no kiss. He replied ‘We’ll kiss next time then, eh?’ And as I left the office, my boss called after me, ‘He’ll be in again tomorrow, Johanna!’
I swear I blushed right to the back of my neck.


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