Two years ago, I moved to Portugal. I moved from a culture where kissing and hugging as a greeting was reserved for family and close friends to one where kissing and hugging are a far more widespread form of greeting. This is further complicated by the fact that my partner is French and that our social circle includes family – English, Portuguese and French, friends – English, Portuguese, French, Danish, German and Dutch and business colleagues and acquaintances which include all of the above plus Spanish and Italians as well. They all have different rules for social greetings!
Social kissing is the quick peck/brush on the cheek used as greeting in most social situations. It is not the “air kiss” accompanied by the “mwah” of the celebrity circuit.
A handshake is still the generally accepted initial greeting on introduction between strangers. However, after introduction, this can all change and in some case this initial step is sidestepped particularly if the person you are being introduced to is already at the “two/three/four kisses stage” with your partner.
In the UK, the handshake still rules outside of family and close friends. A loose hug and a kiss on both cheeks are suitable for friends and as you get to know a person the hug tends to get tighter and last longer.
The Germans and the Scandinavians tend to follow the UK in their greeting habits and tend to reserve their kissing for family and friends.
In France, it is two or four kisses starting with the right cheek depending on which area you live in. In Pau — southern France it is two — in Paris it is four.
In Lisbon and larger cities in Portugal, it is two starting on the left. In this area of Portugal it is four – starting with the left. I think this tends to be because we live in a rural area where everyone knows everyone else or knows someone who does. I found it quite unnerving to start with — especially when I was greeted this way the first time I met my partner’s ex less than a month after my arrival! By the time the dentist greeted me in this manner I was used to it! We are also in a position where most of our business colleagues are friends which means there is always a whole lot of kissing going on. Heaven forbid if you leave anyone out at a family or large gathering – that is akin to an insult.
Just to make things complicated, the Dutch, the Polish and the Swiss go for three, the Dutch and the Polish start on the left – the Swiss on the right.
Serbians also go for three whichever their country of origin – Croatians and Bosnians go for two starting on the right.
The Spaniards go for two from the right and the Italians go for as many as they can get away with!
If you are uncomfortable with this “over-familiarity” or uncertain about how many, or which side, a broad smile and a firm handshake will forestall any unwarranted kissing action and a possible clash of heads.