Page 13 Cartoons

Hey, wanna make out? Oh … a handshake is cool too

September 17, 2009

Inhabiting a campus as culturally eclectic as Georgetown, I often find myself unsure of the proper way to greet someone. Should I give a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or just a casual wave? Greeting someone can be a surprisingly uneasy task, especially with international students. Just the other day I was caught by surprise by my Swedish friend, who greeted me with a “hey” and a smile. I thought the exchange was over, but then he gallantly swooped down and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I was taken aback by the smoothness of the movement and I reprimanded myself for not anticipating it. I felt awkward—I was caught off guard and taken out of my comfort zone. I even felt a bit guilty for not reciprocating his affection spontaneously.
Most of my American friends don’t sweat friendly greetings like I do, but I come from a French family. I grew up giving two kisses on the cheek to relatives and friends. But when we moved to New Jersey, a simple “hi” with an occasional hug for a close friend sufficed. I shed my customary “hello” of a hand on the shoulder with cheek-to-cheek contact and concentrated instead on friendly verbal greetings. Since coming to Georgetown last fall, however, I encounter both practices daily; and now I become anxious every time someone approaches me. Will I be greeting them the right way? Will they think that I’m rude?
The most comforting part of this ordeal is that I know that I’m not alone. Lisa Oberst (COL ’13), a friend and international student from Belgium told me that she generally shakes the hand of non-international students. Americans don’t take very well to her European style of greeting, finding it disconcerting, not knowing how to react or simply doing it wrong. “For example, they might try to ‘kiss’ with their neck because they are so scared of the contact,” she said. “Or in some cases they might even not know that you are supposed to touch cheek-to-cheek, which throws off the whole greeting!”
After a year full of clumsy greetings, I have learned that a smile—and an expectation that each new person might catch you by surprise—will usually suffice and help you avoid awkward situations. After all, while most Europeans are used to physical greetings, even their customs vary: the Swiss mandate three kisses on the cheek, the French two, and the Brits one—plus every other country has its own habits. Between all the nationalities represented at Georgetown, it becomes a bit difficult to keep all of their individual quirks straight. The situation becomes even more chaotic because of the varying relations between the genders. Consider how the rapport between two guys differs, as compared to that of two girls, or a guy and a girl. What if the guy interprets a girl’s kiss as more than just a friendly greeting? These numerous variants represent awkward hellos waiting to happen.
The worst is when Americans try to Europeanize their greeting, or the Europeans start greeting with the American “hey.” The cultural lines become muddled, leaving no clear guideline on what to say or do. I can only conclude that the best way to avoid an awkward greeting is to evauluate someone’s personality—shy or outgoing—rather than their cultural origin. Regardless of background, some people are simply more willing to cross the line of physical contact, while others prefer to stand back and smile. The general population deems both instances appropriate, but figuring out which one to use can be the tricky part.
In the end who can be an authority on when a handshake is no longer satisfactory, or a hug too informal? My friend Lisa commented that it would be a shame if some cultures abandoned their own unique habits. Just like any other custom, the way each of us greets another is part of our personality—and makes us who we are.

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