No matter what language you take a course in, you learn the same thing on the first day:
The teacher teaches you how to exchange verbal greetings and, showing your aptitude by repeating it back, she then moves on to the subjunctive case.
Unfortunately, if one actually goes to a country that speaks that language, flushed with confidence that one can properly greet a native, one quickly realizes that the words alone are not enough. They may actually be the least part of it. There is always an accompanying ritual of body movement that must be mastered to make the verbal greeting polite, if not effective.
Greetings around the world vary, but they all have something in common; they feel awkward at first to foreigners.
American greetings, of course, are built upon the handshake. The origins are lost in history and replaced by semi-mythic stories of showing one does not have a weapon, brotherhood hand-clasping, etc. It seems simple enough, although I, like many parents, made sure my sons learned the necessity of a firm, rather than “dead fish,” handshake. Still, it is a strange custom to the uninitiated.
My parents were some of the first westerners to visit several parts of China in the 1980s, and they recounted how so many young people would ask to shake their hand and then giggle as they did so, even looking at their hand afterwards as if checking if it had been transformed in the action.
The strangeness goes both ways. Westerners think the eastern bow is a simple gesture, but it, too, is fraught with social expectations and implications. When president Obama bowed as he greeted the Japanese emperor in Tokyo, critics saw it as a “treasonous” act of subservience rather than a polite gesture.
One generally sees the bow done with eyes down to show respect, but I once received an unforeseen smack to the head early in my Tae Kwon Do years when I did not look at my sensei as we exchanged bows (He said I was implying he was not worthy to watch). I also learned to remain bowed until he came back up, no…matter…how…long.
I also socially goofed when I went to China and tried to hand a business card to a Chinese colleague with one hand. He kept refusing it, to my puzzlement, until I remembered the proper etiquette. I put the card back in my wallet, removed it again, and then presented it to him with TWO hands. He then smiled, bowed, and graciously accepted it with both hands before reciprocating the card-proffering to me.
Jiab grew up in Thailand, where Sawasdee is accompanied by the famed wai hands-together gesture. I did not know till Jiab explained to me that the position of one’s hands, the head bow, and even the order of the greeting vary according to the respect due the entity greeted.
A younger person or a person with lower status (as in business) has to initiate the wai first. Very seldom will you see an older person or a boss initiate the wai. A wai position at the chest is good enough for a slightly older person (a few years older), but a higher and longer wai, with one’s head bowed low for a man and knee bent for a woman, is necessary for parents, bosses, and teachers.
Before a monk or a Buddha, one has to put both hands together to the forehead and position oneself lower. That means if the Buddha or a monk is sitting, one has to sit on the floor and wai.
And then, of course, there’s Spain. Hola is all-purpose, but one needs to also learn how, and more importantly, when, to say buenos dias (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), and buenas noches (good evening/night).
Don’t let the “after-noon” translation fool you. As Jiab says, it’s not afternoon until after lunch, and since that doesn’t occur here till 2:00 or 3:00, it’s a trap. Similarly, one can get on a bus going to dinner at 9:00 pm and still be wishing people good afternoon.
Ahh, but all this is secondary to…the kiss.
Like performing martial arts, Americans have seen the moves done in movies, and they imagine they could do it on the spot with ease…until it happens.
Left or right cheek? One kiss or two (or more)? Kiss skin or air? How long does one hold? Body distance?
We were thrown into it and had to muddle through it, and muddle we did. I was even told I needed to practice my approach, as I was coming in too nervously fast so as to bump.
To help out other newbies, some short answers:
Number of kisses: Mexico: 1, Spain: 2, France: 2 – 4 (depending on region). See? Easy!
Always offer the right cheek first (sorry lefties), and generally go for just off skin into the air.
Try to keep space between the two bodies. Grabbing elbows is about the right distance.
At one point, I sought out help from Isa, a Spanish woman who has often been the explainer of cultural norms to us. Of course, her very Spanish answer was that there are not so much formal rules to the greeting so much as one should gauge general vibes and circumstances in the moment. ¡Eso es España!
For example, the first time meeting for business, a handshake might suffice. We have a regular cleaning lady, and Isa said we should not kiss-greet her every week, but if it is a special occasion or we have not seen her in a while, why not?
I asked her about kiss-greeting another man’s wife or a younger woman. Isa said the wife was fine (don’t linger). As for the young woman, wait for her to come at you to be safe. I asked her if she ever had creeper guys try to take advantage of the greeting to get too close or stay too long. She said, of course, but that a woman learns to put one hand gently on a suspect man’s chest so as to both maintain distance and, if need be, push away.
And then the virus came…
No one knows how society will change once we all re-emerge from the lockdown, but many suspect that the kiss-greeting may be relegated to the naïve past. Even before the lockdown, as people were still on the street but taking precautions, it was endangered. I met Rosa, our 70-something neighbor, on the street the week before the lockdown. Rather than a kiss, I took off my hat and gave her my best royal courtly bow. She smiled and returned the gesture with a Marie Antoinette approved curtsy.
I hate to see the kiss-greeting go. I felt very awkward doing it at first; now, I welcome how it is just enough of a lowering of all inhibition and safe space to remind us all we are connected. It’s a fleeting shared warmth in a time of cold alienation.
Still, practicality and health will prevail. Perhaps we will turn our heads left right in synchronized (but spaced) greeting. Our son, Ben, is a big proponent of the young American male head nod. One can use it to acknowledge and greet a person next to you or across a crowded party room. It even has two forms: the short jerk up for an informal hello (sometimes accompanied by “S’up?”) or the slightly slower downward nod that implies more formality or a more serious greeting.
Whatever comes next, we will embrace it (but keep our distance). It will probably start simple, and then over time build up cultural conditions and exceptions, like sticky tape picking up cat hair (or is that only in our house?).
I’ll adopt it too, because, in the end, all such greetings are merely tools. We use greetings to acknowledge that you and I are here, right now, by chance or on purpose it does not matter, but that you matter, and so I will recognize our shared moment of being together.
And that’s something to give a nod to.