Thursday, October 11, 2012

Saying Hi: It's Harder Than You'd Think

How do we greet one another?

In the US, what do we do - with people other than family?  Well, Americans most often shake hands or hug.  I'm told Europeans don't really "get" our high-fives, but are slightly better at dealing with our fist-bumps.  It depends on the region, but the classic French greeting is two "air kisses," one on each cheek.  I was told by a German that they shake hands.  This isn't really surprising.  I'm pretty sure Brits are similar to Americans.

But what do the Luxembourgish do?

Three, count 'em, THREE air kisses!

(There's a chance I might not have moved here if I knew this ahead of time.)

As far as I can tell, to air kiss, at least in this country, you typically do touch cheeks, while making an audible kissing noise into the air with your lips.  You start with your right cheeks and it's right-left-right.  I imagine that a degree of difficulty is added if you're a lefty with lefty instincts.

But forget about lefties and righties for a minute, because that's the least of your worries when you're in Luxembourg, where nearly half the population is immigrants or expats from all over the world.

In Luxembourg, we have the perfect storm of greeting awkwardness.

Imagine two people in Luxembourg about to greet each other, Person A and Person B.  Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Where A is from 
  2. Where B is from
  3. If A already knows where B is from, because someone else told person A ahead of time, but person B doesn't know that.  Or vice versa.
  4. How well they know each other, or if this is the first introduction, or anything in between. 
  5. If A and B are a male-male, female-female, or male-female
  6. How generally friendly or comfortable with invasions of personal space either A or B are.
  7. Who initiates the greeting and the exact timing of the response (I'll expand on that in a second).
  8. Whether it's hi or goodbye
  9. Remembering what on Earth the two of you did the last time.
One major snag we Americans encounter is that when someone leans in for the three-kiss thing, our instinct is that they're going in for a hug, so we instinctively move forward to hug back.  The problem is, the air kiss requires some physical distance to work; it's just a lean-in-from-where-you're-standing sort of operation.  So, if you've followed your American instincts and gone in for a hug-back by mistake, suddenly you find yourself way too close and practically making out.  This becomes particularly awkward if it's a male-female combo and your spouse is standing right there.

Anyway, imagine all the permutations and combinations of these greetings, and I think I've already done them all.  It's comical what any given greeting session can morph into.  There's nothing quite like being caught in a weird simultaneous side-hug + air-kiss + handshake with another American you barely know, merely because you both find yourselves on Luxembourgish soil at the moment, and it all just kinda happened before you knew what was going on or how to stop it.

I have to say, it's hard to imagine ever getting used to touching my checks multiple times with the face of guy-who-I-just-met-and-can-now-smell-his-lunch-and-alcoholic-beverage-and-cigarette-and-know-when-he-last-shaved.  But then again, I'm on the low end of the tolerance-of-invasions-of-personal-space spectrum.  (And now you know why I over-think and blog about such a topic in the first place.)

So, I see two approaches I could take going forward, because what I'm doing now is clearly not working:

1) Always try to make the first move by proactively sticking out my hand for a handshake, or
2) Always stand perfectly still, wait, and dutifully accept and reciprocate whatever happens.

Approach 1 might make me seem like an obnoxious and culturally-insensitive American, but it's safe at least.  Approach 2 is risky and could also come across as cold and unfriendly.  But I think it's the in-between response that makes for the most awkwardness and leads to the inevitable odd mishmash of greetings all happening at the same time.

My French friend (female) and I just sort of stare at each other and say hi, then quickly move on.  I think we're both cool with this.

Maybe some other travelers or expats or Luxembourgish folks will have some insight for me.  Meanwhile, I'm just waving at you all from behind my computer screen.  Hi!


Anonymous said...

And I always thought we Eskimos had it tough (i.e. Left to right or right to left? Up and down or all around? etc.).


fiona lynne said...

This brings me endless entertainment! I go in for the air kisses with everyone but usually let the other person figure out when to stop ;) But it's almost more awkward with the cultures who aren't used to kissing, like you lovely Americans. Then I have no idea what to do! Hugging seems way more intimate than air kisses (too much body contact!) but hand shaking seems too formal...!

Anonymous said...

Hilarious, great post Rosie. Next time I see you, I'm going in for the Milli Vanilli chest bump.

Rick Nys!

P.S. I can't stand these things that make me figure out what it says and that aren't words before I'm allowed to post anything. I've spent the last 10 minutes trying to figure these out.