Yesterday, I caught myself giving a hug-shake. I invented this mixed move to deal with uneasy greetings. But, alas, I am not very original. The hug-shake is officially defined in the Urban Dictionary!
Respecting the physical content of introductions is as basic to cultural literacy as mastering a few foreign phrases. Brazilians, for example, find most North Americans cold and stand-offish; I was no exception. At my first business dinner, I was baffled by backslapping, bows and beijos (two or three kisses). Learning to read my counterpart and respond in kind was one of my first challenges.
Just when I had mastered the beijo, I traveled to Argentina to discover that one beso is plenty. I expanded my repertoire. After two decades of greeting porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), a dear friend complained, “You never really kiss me. I want to feel your lips, not just your cheek. Like this,” he insisted with an illustrative smack. (As biology major, I still prefer my flawed salutation to his heyday for germs.)
Nonetheless, I have absorbed Latin American warmth and my northern family has had to pay the price. Accustomed to a simple “hello”, they have had to tolerate hugs upon my arrival and departure. By now, it is a ritual that might be missed, if I were to revert to just a wave.
Physical greetings seem to be on the upswing in North America. However, embracing embraces is not always natural. Proof: the Urban Dictionary’s definition of hug-shake as “the awkward phenomenon that occurs when saying bye to your friends' friend who you just met and not knowing whether to go in for the hug too or just the handshake.”
Despite relaxation in some setting, norms about physical contact and physical space still differ dramatically across cultures (and even among families). While doing things “right” often goes unnoticed, blunders can create barriers to satisfying relationships. I have found that a little homework is a great investment in cultural sensitivity.
If you are about to engage with a foreign culture, visit sites such as Pocket Cultures to learn the ropes before you go. And, if your experience could spare another from embarrassment, please share. Fabulous faux pas are the stuff of good storytelling...after the fact!