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The generic question

Traveling abroad as an American, especially in Europe, how can I know when I'm expected to cheek-kiss someone as a parting gesture? Is the rule different for men and women? How do these customs relate to hugging or shaking hands?

My question in context

I'm from the United States, where (at least in my sub-culture) cheek-kissing is generally not performed between anyone who isn't either family-related or romantically involved.

For the sake of this answer, I would appreciate any perspective, not just Canadian, although that is the perspective through which this particular interaction took place.

I was on a trip through Europe with a friend and met three French Canadians from Montreal. When we first met, I believe all greetings were limited to shaking hands.

I am a male American, my traveling companion was a platonic female friend, and the Canadian friends we met were two men and one woman. Their native language was French and their English was fluent but with clear French accents (I'm not sure if this is important or not, I just want to establish the level to which I believe they are versed in French culture).

The five of us spent several days getting meals together and going out for fun until we parted ways.

Upon saying goodbye, I hugged the two men (where I come from, this is common among males you have become close with, and I don't believe there was any discomfort among them), and was approaching the woman for a hug as well but was caught off guard when she performed cheek-kissing. I adjusted my demeanor in time to reciprocate, but I was left wondering how I should have anticipated that moment and behaved appropriately.

Wikipedia writes this about cheek-kissing:

Cheek kissing is a ritual or social kissing gesture to indicate friendship, family relationship, perform a greeting, to confer congratulations, to comfort someone, to show respect, or to indicate sexual or romantic interest.

Cheek kissing is very common in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Latin America.

What social strategies can I use to know when this is expected so that I can avoid coming off awkwardly while traveling? It seems like the social gesture is confined to "friends" based on the description from Wikipedia, and we had only known the group for several days, but I still consider them "friends," however I was unsure if that was the level of friendship that warrants cheek-kissing, or if it is usually performed among close, long-term friends. Or is it expected even among acquaintances?

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    I can only offer that I have been to Europe, and I live very near Canada and have traveled there a lot. I would be totally confused on how to handle greeting Canadian friends in Europe too as this is not what I experience when I visit Canada. I have only ever been hugged (I am female). I've never seen cheek kissing in any parts of Canada I have been and I have been there easily 50 or more times in travel (Quebec too), more if you count popping over for a night out. – threetimes Aug 28 '17 at 7:46
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    Please bear in mind that Europe is a collection of very different cultures and not a single country. The details depend entirely on where you are even among those countries where the custom exists. And, for example in France, it also depends on what region of the country you are in with some regions going for one kiss, others for two and some for three. Please make your question more specific. – terdon Aug 28 '17 at 14:09
  • @terdon Thanks, that's true. If you look under the section "My question in context" you'll see that I specified that my interaction was with "French Canadians from Montreal," though the interaction took place in Europe. I mentioned the "generic question" only to summarize the question at the top, and I mentioned that "For the sake of this answer, I would appreciate any perspective, not just Canadian" because I appreciate the insight that can come from various perspectives. I've found the existing answers very useful. – RaceYouAnytime Aug 28 '17 at 15:00
  • Indeed, I'm just pointing out that the range of variation is enormous. I've lived in 3 different European countries where cheek kissing is common and each had completely different rules for it. – terdon Aug 28 '17 at 15:28
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    @only_pro yes, but that means it's impossible to answer. I already pointed out the example of France which ranges from one through three kisses depending on region. In one case, you change from 3 to 2 by travelling just ~160 km (from Montpelier to Marseille). So, and as the top answer points out, it's essentially impossible to give an answer since there's just too much variation. – terdon Mar 7 at 17:31
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I have lived in France for roughly 25 years, and from experience, I can tell you that:

  1. You never know for sure if you have to cheek-kiss.
  2. Even the French don't know if, in case you cheek-kiss, you do it 2, 3 or 4 times: it depends on the part of the country you're in (but it's 1 in Belgium).
  3. You usually do that only with close friends or family. But it happens also at the workplace too, check the local rules if you get there.
  4. It's more towards women than men, even though male friends sometimes do that too.

My advice is: let the woman choose. Step friendly towards her, prepare your hand, so she sees what you intend to do, and she'll tell you what she prefers. And respect her choice as she should respect yours, of course :)

When it comes to men, prepare to shake hands most of the time, don't be surprised if he offers a hug or a cheek-kiss.

Note: hugs are not really custom, even amongst family members. This applies either for greetings or good bye. FWIW: on trips/studies/work/vacation in UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland, I never had to cheek-kiss anyone.

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    Speaking about France: men shake hands between themselves unless they are close family or very close friends, and for all other cases we kiss on the cheeks (male-female, female-female). It's usually 2 times so if you are not sure, do it so, and we salute class comrades and coworkers as well usually, not just friends and relatives (as a male, I would kiss all the female coworkers and shake hand with the males when arriving at work in the morning). Hugs are almost never OK, don't do that. – Shautieh Aug 28 '17 at 1:37
  • "let the woman choose" seems to imply one or two things I'm not sure I'd agree with, or at I am confused about. Why is this your advice? What is it based upon? What would be the repercussions if your advice was not followed? What if a man initiated a cheek-kiss? Is it purely to avoid making them feel intimidated or uncomfortable? – ESR Aug 28 '17 at 1:39
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    OldPadawan thank you for an excellent answer, and also thanks to both you and @Shautieh for the advice that hugs are not customary among the French, I did not know that and it's good to know for future interactions. – RaceYouAnytime Aug 28 '17 at 2:59
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    @EdmundReed : OP says he was willing to hug/cheek-kiss, and be friendly, but his question makes it clear to me. It seems like he wants to be nice and do what's appropriate. To me, an appropriate move is one that won't make the other one feel uncomfortable. A kind of "respectful greeting that was the one expected on the other side". But how do you know?... Therefore, offer the person an opportunity to show you what s/he is expecting. Be a woman or a man, your body is your body, and no one should try and invade your privacy. Want to be nice? Let the person choose and respect her choice. – OldPadawan Aug 28 '17 at 4:35
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    +1. Actually there's even a website gathering cheek-kiss strategies statistics for France. Note that the starting cheek varies as well, so you might end up in an awkward accidental lip-kiss. With people I meet for the first time I just wait for him/her to initiate something, it's usually pretty clear if it's going to be a handshake or a left/right kiss looking at their hands/head posture. People who don't want to kiss also tend to make it clear and give you their hands spontaneously or in reaction to you approaching them for a kiss. – strnk Aug 28 '17 at 12:32
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From my own experience, this is not black or white. I will agree that if you aren't sure, let the other person make the first move. You can politely extend your hand to be on the safe side. You can't go wrong with a handshake.

Or is it expected even among acquaintances?

Not necessarily, even though people usually expect for reciprocation. So, if they hug you, hug them back, if they kiss you kiss them back.That said, I don't think a woman would get offended if you don't kiss her back the first time around. This really depends on how comfortable you feel around that person and how they feel around you.

Moreover,

Should I have cheek-kissed the men as well as the women?

Usually no and not if it's the first time you meet them. If you are initiating the greeting then I would say a handshake is fine. A man shouldn't get offended if you don't cheek-kiss them first!

Some other common greetings among men in Southern Europe include hugging or a pat on the back. (It's usually older men or relatives who cheek-kiss from my experience). If a man cheek-kisses you first, you can either kiss them back, touch their cheek with yours, or reciprocate with a kiss in the air or don't kiss them. You have plenty of options! It doesn't matter that much (to men). If cheek-kissing a man makes you feel uncomfortable don't do it. I should point out that cheek-kissing among men is not that common in general, sometimes even among friends. In fact, in some regions it might even be best to avoid it.

Should I have known that the woman would expect cheek-kissing?

Yes and no. With women it's usually expected to cheek-kiss back if you have been cheek-kissed. But on the other hand it depends on the woman. It's best to let her kiss you first to avoid misunderstandings. If you are initiating the greeting, you can either give a handshake or a hug if it's the first time. If you know the women and you feel friendly and warm towards them and they have cheek-kissed you in the past, kiss them back. With women, it's usually considered more polite to reciprocate the same way. IF a woman gives you a handshake she probably prefers to keep it that way for now in which case, I wouldn't encourage you to kiss her on the cheek.

I hope this helped. You seem to have done some research yourself.

3

Italian here. In my country, the "cheek-kissing" is often performed between close friends and family, but be aware that it's just customary and that you don't have to if you don't want. This happens without discrimination.

Between "almost-strangers", aside from the fact that the unspoken rule I've written in bold is still valid, I often shake hands with males (I'm male as well) and sometimes (depending on the friendliness of the person) I kiss the cheek of females. This is absolutely no-go, though, if you are in a formal meeting, where you normally only shake hands.

About taking the lead, (disclaimer: this is a personal opinion but I found out it was like this most of the times) I think that you should do it with women only if you feel confident. What I observed is that if you do that being sure of yourself and without any other purpose than being friendly, women will react good to your cheek-kiss. However, if you're shy, it gives the impression that you charge that kiss with a second meaning (which they might not like). Please notice that I'm not saying, though, that you can compel someone to kiss you goodbye. The worst that can happen is that they retreat their face: this may look awkward, but it's just a small situation limited to those 5 seconds. No one will think less of you because of this.

An experience I had in Germany: I was invited by a colleague of my wife to a dinner. I already knew her, and I went straight to cheek-kiss her when we met her. She retreated her face, I smiled and said: "I just wanted to cheek-kiss you". She let me, and I think she understood it was a friendly move, and possibly she learned something of our culture :)

EDIT: Oh yeah, after reading another answer, I'd like to clarify too, that cheek-kissing is always (at least in Italy) intended as a contact between cheek and cheek and not a proper kiss

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As a French, I can tell you that I am not always sure to do it appropriately but it is not a real problem as there is no sexual charge in such a habit. It is mainly a matter of situation and subtle body language that can tell you the truth.

As a stranger you just have to behave neutrally to feel comfortable: invite others to shake your hands; then people will propose you to check-kiss in return when appropriate. It is highly probable that women will kiss you first. Men will propose it after much more time and more close relationship, when men kiss each other it is a sure sign of a good friendship (or they are in the same family).

Never kiss in professional or formal situations (it is fairly rare). Cheek-kissing is never considered with sexual connotation, except if you insist too much and inappropriately. Also, remember that what we called cheek-kissing is not really kissing the cheeks! It is more like cheek-to-cheek touch with a kind of a discreet sound of a kiss. A real kiss on the cheek is, at least and surely, a romantic gesture! In fact, the more it is like a real kiss on the cheek, the more close is the relation.

Don't hug like North-Americans, this is not well used in France except among Football/Soccer fans during matches or in close-relation situations, while it can be used in some other Northern European countries. It may seem slightly bizarre to Frenchies but nobody will blame you for it, on the contrary, it can be interpreted as a charming habit from a friendly American!

French hugs are not face-to-face but more side-by-side when a man use one arm to pass or tap his hand on the back of his peer. Don't try with women, too much contact with another person is generally considered as sexually charged in Europe.

Of course, all of this is roughly described, there exist many local variants and you will be able to observe a different kind of habits, but remember most of the time the following is sufficient to be considered as polite:

  • man-man: handshake + hi/hello/goodbye
  • woman-woman: hi/hello/goodbye (handshake in a formal situation)
  • man-woman: hi/hello/goodbye (handshake in a formal situation)

PS: I apologize for my bad English while being able to express common things, explaining such subtleties is much more difficult to me.

2

I have lived on the Greek/Turkish island of Cyprus for a small chunk of my life.

I was born in Canada, but my family is from the Turkish side of Cyprus, so I understand how difficult it can be for someone who isn't a native to adjust to the culture/customs.

Typically in Cyprus, and other European countries for that matter, cheek kissing is only between family and close family friends.

However, occasionally friends may kiss cheeks as well.

It's all a matter of reciprocating what others do. If I were you I would not try and initiate anything, and simply go along with whatever others may try to do.

The bottom line is, if a European wants to kiss you on the cheek as a means of saying good bye they will.

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