I guess as a kid I took for granted the fact that you kissed cheeks to say hello. My mom is Bolivian and I’m from Brazil, so kissing cheeks was the most natural thing in the world for me. When we moved to the US, I remember the shock on my first-grade teacher’s face when I leaned in to kiss her on the first day of class. That was when I realized that in the U.S., kissing strangers is just not ok!
When I studied abroad in Chile my junior year, it was fascinating to watch the Americans on my program have the opposite problem. Suddenly, they were being kissed by everyone and anyone they met! Men still preserve their macho reserve and only shake hands with other men (or they may give you a hug), but man-woman and woman-woman interactions ALWAYS start with a kiss (or maybe two, or even three!)
The “rules” for kissing will vary depending on which country you’re going to. Europe and the Middle East are famous for this too, and while rules in Europe may be similar to those in Latin America, in the the Middle East, men generally should NOT try to kiss any women, and any cheek kissing they participate in will likely be with other men. I can only really speak for Latin America and “Latin” Europe (France, Spain, Italy), so I thought I’d lay out some general ground rules for those regions:
Guys—be prepared to shake hands with other men and possibly a quick half-hug too, and make sure you look up the etiquette on how many kisses you should give women when you meet them (depending on if they’re single or married, this can change).
Girls—be prepared to be kissed by everyone! Men, women, children…they will all kiss you hello and goodbye.
While is some countries you don’t exchange kisses on the first meeting, in others you kiss once you’ve been introduced. Typically in a professional setting you won’t kiss your colleagues he first time you meet, but may be expected to kiss after that. In some countries people will actually kiss your cheeks, in others, it’s more of cheeks touching and “air kisses.” Just follow the lead of whoever you’re with!
One last pointer—I can’t speak for other regions, but at least in Latin America make sure you individually greet everyone in a room, and do the same when you leave. Waving hello or goodbye to the whole room is considered very rude.
Good luck, and enjoy all the smooching!
Stephanie Roberts, OIE Peer Advisor