Some time ago now I found myself at a lavish party. This was the kind of event with tall glasses of champagne waiting for you on the table near the door upon arrival, and people dressed up in all manner of tailored outfits, iced with sparkling, notice-me jewelry. I didn't crash the party — I had been invited — and I, too, was all dolled up, ready to make chitchat as best I could. Given the fact that I have a tendency to turn into a turtle at events like this, easygoing chitchat with high-society strangers would be a feat unto itself. But as I approached the brightly lit, rented space that served as our party HQ, I held my chin high. This was just as much my event as it was anyone else’s. I was no more of an alien than they were.
Forty-five minutes later, I had come to the realization that no, I was in fact much more of an alien than they were. I’m 99% certain there was actual antenna growing out of my head because I’d managed to have half a conversation with all of one person. The thing is, I am used to this sort of thing — not because I’m socially inept but because, as a writer, a traveler, and an overall fan of the human race, I spend a good amount of time observing people. So I figured, why not take the time I have here not switching between idly staring into space and at my phone, but gathering information for future projects.
It’s really not as creepy as it sounds — promise.
So I gathered away, taking note of the way the accent lighting danced off of champagne glasses and diamond earrings; the tendency for groups of three or four to gather together in tight circles and the ease with which our host commanded the room, drifting from person to person, never without a smile. Of all these details, however, it was the greetings that caught my attention the most. Partygoers greeting one another with a feminine peck on each cheek. I saw this happen multiple times, silently thanking the party gods that I hadn't yet been greeted with a social kiss.
I thought to myself, if I’m an outsider, then this party is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign land. There are customs here that must be observed. After all, going to a party like this one is exactly visiting a foreign country — you have no knowledge of who you’ll meet or how they’ll greet you — just a superficial understanding of what you’ll come across when you get there.
The Do's and Don’ts of the Social Kiss
As it turns out, the custom of social kissing (also known as 'cheek kissing', or less commonly, 'air kissing') at parties is not so different from the traditions of social kissing found across countries. This is a more intimate greeting than a handshake or a hug, and it has specific rules depending on where you do it, and who you do it with. In some countries, two 'mwah's' is appropriate, while in others it’s considered rude or sexual to press your lips to someone's cheeks.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? But It’s not so bad. Here are a few ground rules to keep in mind:
1. Keep context in mind – You won’t be greeted with a social kiss every time you meet someone new. It goes without saying that lunging in unceremoniously may cause unnecessary awkwardness or offense.
2. Follow their lead – If you’re not sure what to do, let the other person guide you. They're the host, after all, and they know what they’re doing.
3. Make eye contact – This goes for all countries you visit, and all parties you attend. Just like regular kissing, you want to make sure the other person understands your intentions and sees that you are confident as you go into it. This is a safe and smart way to ensure that you can be happy with the social kiss no matter what happens.
4. Relax – Nothing is accomplished by shying away. If I had the opportunity to attend that party again, I’d make it my business to kiss everybody in that room. Of course, when you’re traveling, you’re looking for adventure anyway — so dive right into that kiss. If you mess up, don’t worry — you’ve learned your lesson for next time.
1. Offer social kisses in a business setting – In all countries, you’ll find that social kissing only occurs in casual settings. Sometimes it is more common among close friends and relatives, while other countries practice the custom with everyone, strangers included. However, the business world seems to have reached a universal consensus that a handshake is the farthest they’ll go where anything touchy-feely is concerned.
2. Kiss the opposite sex without understanding cultural traditions – Customs across countries run the gamut here from men being forbidden to social kiss women to men being obligated to kiss the woman first. Gender barriers are breaking down more and more often nowadays, but these customs are inset in history and tradition, and so they are important to take note of when traveling.
21 Places to Practice Social Kissing
Russians appreciate a certain aplomb when greeting others — firm handshakes, direct eye contact, and no pretense. Men and women alike may greet each other with three kisses on the cheek, starting with the left side (left-right-left). This custom is often accompanied by the infamous Russian bear hug.
Bulgaria & Romania
Bulgaria shares Russia’s appreciation for firm handshakes and eye contact, but not its affinity for kisses. While cheek kisses may occur every now and then, they are not very common — instead reserved for family and close friends. In Romania, cheek kisses happen more frequently but it's likely you won’t encounter one of these unless you find yourself a group of friends on your travels.
France is renowned for the social kiss, known colloquially as “la bise”. In Paris, the greeting is a 'mwah' on the left cheek followed by a 'mwah' on the right. In the South of France, another 'mwah' should be added on the left cheek (for a total of three kisses). This should strictly involve cheeks brushing against one another though — but no lip-to-cheek contact should occur.
Social besos are commonplace, though typically more so among women. One kiss on the left cheek, then one on the right. If you can manage it, introduce yourself while you 'mwah' — it may just help ease your apprehension. Check out Young Adventuress for a traveler's insight into kissing in Spain.
Brazilians embrace many forms of affection, including the social kiss. One kiss in São Paulo, dois beijos in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, and three in Salvador — so best to check the particular region you’re visiting before embarking on any kissing sprees.
Italy, Greece, & Portugal
In Italy, cheek kisses are relatively common but really depend upon your relationship with the stranger. If you do find yourself in a kissing situation, start with a 'mwah' on the right cheek, then the left – and if you kiss hello, be sure to also kiss goodbye. The two-cheek kiss is a common man-to-man and woman-to-woman greeting in Greece – where both sexes are concerned, context matters. And in Portugal, women often offer a two-cheek kiss beginning with the right cheek, then the left (although this is not typically the case with men).
Two-cheek kisses are common here. A Hungarian may offer you a ‘puszi’, or a light kiss on the cheek, in farewell.
Unless you are greeting a member of the sacred community, it is not uncommon for friends to offer each other a kiss on each cheek in greeting and farewell. If you’re unsure what to do, a simple shalom ought to work in any situation.
Men and women will customarily offer a kiss on both cheeks, starting with the right cheek. This is more often than not reserved for family and friends.
Oman & The Inuit (Greenland, Canada, and Alaska)
Nose kisses—that is, touching nose to nose—are a common greeting among men in Oman. The Inuit have the kunik for close friends and family, where greeters touch noses, nuzzle and sniff to offer affection.
Hugs and handshakes are more perhaps more common, but Turkey is no stranger to the two-cheek kiss. Social kisses between members of the same sex are frequent. Between the sexes, the man will only offer a social kiss if the woman presents her cheek.
Croatia, Bosnia, & Serbia
Serbs typically greet each other with three cheek kisses, beginning with the right cheek (right-left-right). Bosniaks and Croats may greet each other with two-cheek kisses or a single peck — but never offer a kiss after a handshake.
The UK, the US & Canada
Cheek kissing isn’t so common, but when it does occur, it is a two-cheek kiss, beginning with the right cheek. Hugs and handshakes are far more routine.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
As the saying goes, 'out with the old and in with the new', social etiquette is dying a slow death in this generation and while some of it disintegrates alongside outdated, sexist ways of thinking, it can be argued that the more we neglect cultural traditions and customs, the more we risk disrespecting the cultures they come from. There are innumerable lessons to be learned from the places and the people we visit, and if we open ourselves up to them and the things they do, however peculiar they may seem, we can end up bettering ourselves.
After leaving the party that night, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed wasn’t just a foreign phenomenon — it was one example of a charming tradition that had been passed down through many generations and across many communities around the world. In essence, it was one of the quirks of being human.
The conclusion I drew after being an alien for the evening? Human beings are pretty quirky, and that makes us pretty cool. If you ever find that you’re the alien in a given situation, revel in it. Take the opportunity to learn from your host and risk a cheek kiss gone wrong. At the end of the day, life’s a party — so best you get a kick out of it.