I’ve just been in Europe – the kissing continent. One kiss on one cheek or one on each? That’s the question, usually. But then in some places there is the difficult and often unexpected third kiss - the norm in Geneva, where I lived for 6 years. What we need is some sort of guide to tell us whether we are in a one cheek region or have drifted into a two, three or four cheek one. Help is at hand. In my mail today, a very useful map of France shows where the kisses fall and how often. As you can see, it’s one kiss in only a small section of the country with most of France going for two or three. The extreme four kisses is largely experienced in the Northeast.
As for the rest of Europe, by my reckoning, it’s one in Belgium but three is considered respectful when greeting older people. It’s three in the Netherlands, and for most of the rest, Spain and the Scandinavian countries included, it’s two. In Germany, stick with a handshake unless you’re family or very close. The same works in Italy.
In the UK it is all very difficult and embarrassing. Who will ever forget the miss-timed peck Charles bestowed on the back of Diana’s neck? (In his defense and to this day I still believe he was aiming for the basic single cheek kiss).
The New Zealand Maori sometimes greet with a hongi, the pressing of noses. This is most often done in a formal greeting line and traditionally with your eyes closed. It can be one press or two depending on no rule I have ever worked out except that the mingling of breath is at the heart of the custom. The truth is that once you get away from the now routine handshake, rules often don’t get you very far. You have to feel the emotional subtleties rather than know all about them.