Have you ever stumbled during an international introduction? How do you turn awkward into opportunity? 

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!

Greetings 101 should be a requirement, not only for diplomats but for anyone with close encounters of the cross-cultural kind.  If you doubt this, just visit International Arrivals at your favorite airport. Meetings are wrapped in everything from cool composure to exuberant bear hugs. 

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!   

© Copyright  2013 by Bethe Lee Moulton



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    The Author

    Bethe Lee Moulton brings a unique perspective to her writing, grounded in strong family roots and inspired by global experience.  Her career as an international strategist inspired her to write her award-winning novel, Until BrazilHer blog, The Cultures Within Café, is a place to share the challenges and joys and challenges of living in an ever-smaller world. Bethe divides her time between Boston, Buenos Aires, and Boca Raton, to be with her far-flung friends and family, spanning four generations, multiple cultures, and diverse worldviews.  



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