I was struck by how many kisses make a greeting in France. Up to 5 depending on where you live (or maybe it also depends how much you like your friend) as you can see in the map here.
Then I thought: what advice would I give someone from another country about kissing as a greeting in the UK? Who kisses who, where, when – there are so many aspects to cover. For international professionals working with UK partners, clients and colleagues, it’s really important to know.
Kissing when you say hello? There’s no simple rule in the UK
What do we do socially? Do we kiss or not, and when? Is it one or two? Is it OK in business? Do we kiss or shake hands round our colleagues in the office every day like in France?
For 25 years I was an English teacher for foreigners, in Brazil, Egypt, Singapore, Oxford. Most of my clients were business people, professionals who really needed to know the UK protocols about greetings. But I found it so difficult to tell them! There was no simple rule. And once I started to think “What do we do?” it just seemed so complicated.
I can’t remember what precisely I told them to do but I know I didn’t cover the options because they were just too many.
So much of our our hello/goodbye kissing in the UK is up to our personal choice. When I was younger, it was even considered acceptable for adults to refuse to shake hands on a first meeting at a social event. Today, I would consider that pretty rude.
And customs change
The scene was very different in the past. Back in 1990 I was shocked to see British female teachers at an upmarket institute in Madrid greet their business clients with a kiss on both cheeks. It seemed to me then to be far too friendly. I didn’t realise a kiss on the cheek is a standard hello in Spain if you know someone.
It has changed so much in the UK since then.
Today in the UK it’s not unusual at all for a woman to greet a business client with a kiss on the cheek. Depending on the persons involved, this would probably happen if they know each other well, like each other and the context is fairly informal. However, it’s not a standard greeting and in some contexts would still not be appropriate. People play it by ear or do what feels appropriate.
That’s the trouble in the UK. In many situations we seem quite informal and flexible, as if anything goes and nobody minds what you do. But that’s not entirely true. As in any country, there are rules or norms for acceptable behaviour. In the UK, it’s often very difficult to discover what they are!
Cultural briefings for work
Nowadays, it is understood that you’ll make relationships more easily when you visit a new country for work, if you have a cultural briefing beforehand. My advice is this – don’t limit your briefing to information about the economic and business situation only. Make sure you also receive some briefing on :
- the history
- the values
- the concerns
You’ll be able to build better relationships if you know key facts about these things. You’ll understand more from the conversations that take place.
Always make sure your briefing includes behaviour too, such as:
- How do they behave at meetings and socially?
- What do they talk about?
- What subjects are taboo or sensitive?
- How do they greet each other – at the first meeting? And subsequent meetings?
- How should you greet them at the first meeting? And subsequent meetings?
Why does it matter?
You might think these things don’t matter because it is obvious that you come from another country. But verbal and non-verbal communication are both important. Non-verbal behaviour goes deep and we react to it very fast, on an emotional level. Although this reaction can be almost unconscious, it can quickly affect how we treat each other.
Showing you’ve made an effort to follow the customs of your host – or, even better, showing you are “like them, not unlike them” – is a way to build trust more quickly. Since first impressions are important everywhere , make sure you follow the rules around greetings.