Seen in Venice: Two Americans trying to shake hands and kiss cheeks at the same time.
Who would have thought an innocent gesture of goodwill could cause so much confusion among friends, family and associates? When to kiss, how many kisses, left cheek, right cheek, both cheeks, lips or not? Visitors to Italy often have cheek kissing anxiety.
Have you ever greeted an Italian by going for a cheek kiss only to have them extend an arm for a hearty handshake and a cheery, “Buongiorno” or “Piacere?” Regions and cultures often dictate kissing rules, but the bottom line to the kissing dilemma is this: When in doubt, don’t!
Some things to consider before offering a cheek include how well you know the person, whether it is a business or social occasion, and your own motive behind the gesture. Keep in mind that much of this depends on the personality of the kisser. Most Italians are warm and demonstrative. They particularly enjoy bestowing their kisses on close friends and family, but for new acquaintances (potential future friends), in business settings, and with strangers, a handshake is the greeting of choice.
Don’t kiss someone you have never met before. Be a consistent kisser. If you greet someone with a kiss, don’t forget to do the same to say, “Arrivederci.” Offering your hand for a handshake after a hello kiss sends a confusing message.
If you have a sufficiently close cheek-to-cheek relationship, then start on the right and graze the cheek of the other person with your own, refrain from making the “Moi, Moi” or any other sound into the other person’s ear. Then switch to the left cheek and repeat. Not to make this difficult, but you may find that in some parts of Italy they start left cheek first and then right. When in doubt, pause and follow the lead of your Italian friend.
Stop at a kiss to each check. Unlike in France or Russia, a third pass is extremely rare in Italy. Don’t actually kiss the cheek unless it is a very, very close friend or family member. If your kiss includes a hug, make it brief, a few short taps on the back are appropriate, avoid pounding the back of the other person.
Usually the cheek kissing routine is between women and women and men and women, but there are regions in Italy, mostly in the south, where men greet one another with kisses on either cheek. Some suggest that Italian women who wanted their men to sympathize with their suffering when brushing up against scruffy, unshaven beards started this. The safest route for a man visiting Italy is to offer a handshake to greet other men. After that follow the lead of those Italian metrosexual friends. As a general rule, women have the universal power to dictate proximity. The woman has to take charge to avoid any awkwardness.
Ironically, the number one situation most fraught with danger is when a foreigner meets a fellow expat. If the person is a friend, or a friend of a friend, do you stay with the custom of Italy or fall back on the etiquette of the homeland? It’s probably safest to stay with the handshake until your relationship rises to the level of closeness that calls for kisses.
Allora: When in doubt, stick with your own cultural norm. There is no need to become Italian in all ways when visiting the country.