Kiss, Hug Or Handshake? How To Navigate The Potential Pratfalls Around Simply Saying Hello
Ever thought back to one of your more awkward introductions and felt a hot flush of shame? Lean in for a kiss when they are going for a handshake and you end up with their fist in your waist. Aim for a hug when they wanted to peck your cheek and you might end up with an accidental kiss on the lips.
The pitfalls of greeting etiquette are getting ever more complicated in our ultra-connected world, where French, Chinese, American and Malaysian businesspeople get together for a week of meetings and have absolutely no idea how to say hello. "It's definitely pretty hard to remember," says AI expert Stephanie Sy. "Whenever I travel for work, I always feel like I'm about to mess up. I know the rules at home in Manila, but anywhere else—particularly in Europe—and I'm lost."
If you’ve made some of these embarrassing mistakes, you’re not alone. And it’s not your fault—this stuff is hard. Two Frenchwomen working in fashion are going to greet each other with a double air kiss. Two American bankers will shake hands. Two Japanese businessmen might bow with respect. But what happens if you work across industries and countries? We’ve spoken to two etiquette experts to get some answers.
When it comes to etiquette, there is no greater source than Debrett’s—an authority on how to behave in polite society since 1769. Founded in London, it has spent three centuries providing the people of Britain with invaluable advice. Hence why we turned to Jo Bryant, a long-time Debrett’s contributor and the editor of some of its recent guides, for advice.
We also spoke to Agnes Ho of Singapore’s Etiquette and Image International Company, which specialises in different greetings from around Asia, in both business and social situations. She is an introduction guru, who knows how to shake hands in either the Middle Eastern or Western way (the Arab way is gentler and longer than the tight grips of the US), when to do a namaste in India or a wai in Thailand (and when not to) and more.
Media is more relaxed than management. Art is more air kiss than acquisitions. This we know. But what to do if you’re greeting the director of a publishing company or a top art buyer? “The safest option is just to go with a handshake,” says Bryant. “It’s the most usual greeting when meeting someone, and when saying goodbye, whether they’re male or female. Some artistic and creative industries are definitely more ‘kissy’ but for formal business, social kissing is inappropritate. If in doubt professionally, always begin with a handshake.”
How do we greet that colleague or person we follow on social media but have never actually met – two air kisses? One kiss and a weird half-hug? If you’re worried, stick out your hand with confidence. Nobody can misconstrue that.
You may have worked out how to behave at home, but the moment you hop on a plane, you’re back to the drawing board again. Luckily Agnes Ho has a handy guide:
Wai. Prayer pose with palm to palm close to the heart.
Namaste. Prayer pose with palm to palm close to the heart.
Mano Po. The less senior of the two will hold the more senior’s hand and bow his forehead toward the back of his/her palm.
Air kisses. Lips do not touch the cheeks and just an empty “muack” whisper next the right cheek.
Spain, Italy, France, UK
Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Russia
Bow before a handshake. The more junior in rank and age should bow more deeply than the more senior.
Hongi, Maori. Touch one nose to the other.
In certain countries, particularly those that are Muslim majority, men and women are often encouraged not to touch—and that adds another whole layer to the social minefield that is saying hello.
“In Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or Brunei, men won’t shake hands with a woman,” says Ho. “If a woman does extend their hand, then they will shake it. Although in most cases, a woman will place her palm over the left chest to the man she is meeting, and he will follow suit. When two men from these countries are meeting each other, they often kiss each other over their right shoulders.”
In the West, it’s the opposite. “Closer friends will kiss hello, usually women-women or men-women,” says Bryant. “In the UK and the US, it’s unusual for men to kiss each other hello, and instead they may hug. In many European countries, social kissing is an accepted greeting with its own etiquette. In France you kiss people you’ve never met before, whether you’re a man or a woman. And the US is also more informal than the UK, although it tends to be about hugs and physicality—for both sexes, again—than Britain.”
What should you say?
‘"How do you do’ is a very formal, traditional greeting that is responded to with ‘how do you do’. It is seldom used today,” says Bryant. “Instead, a simple ‘hello’ and a warm smile is good, or ‘lovely to meet you’. ‘Pleased to meet you’ should be avoided as it was once seen as a lower-class style of greeting. Good eye contact, a firm handshake and a smile will always be well-received when meeting people.”
What to do when you get it wrong?
You’ve done the unthinkable and lunged for someone’s cheek when they were expecting a handshake, or gone for full Japanese bow when all they wanted was a friendly nod. Can you redeem yourself? Or have you just messed up that all important deal by greeting your client as if they were your Tinder date?
“My best advice is to watch and learn, and be led by the people you are with who are from the country you are visiting,” says Bryant. “Let them take the lead. You can then fit in and learn as you go. But if you’ve messed up, be confident in your decision, and if it’s awkward diffuse it with humour or a smile. The best approach is to always go for a handshake and adopt a social kiss if it seems appropriate or if the other person is going in for one. But most importantly, don’t panic!”