Am I alone in finding the whole business of greetings rather awkward? The questions run deep: a hug or a kiss? One kiss or two? Is a handshake too formal? It’s a cultural minefield.
When I was a teenager, the protocol was understood: a single high-pitched squeal followed by a back-breaking embrace. Not being particularly tactile, I despised this exaggerated and hysterical show of affection but at least I knew the rules.
There are very few people with whom I feel the need to engage in embrace: my children, obviously; my husband, occasionally; and I guess that if Jude Law were feeling particularly vulnerable I could be persuaded to give him a cuddle.
The problem with living in a melting-pot like the UAE is that, along with a wide variety of nationalities, comes a profusion of greetings.
Last year I worked with a lovely gentleman who had spent several years in France. His enthusiasm for the French culture was such that, at the beginning and the end of each meeting, we were obliged to kiss each other on both cheeks. This was bearable most of the time but felt like a dreadful waste of time for just a two-minute chat.
Like me, my best friend is Irish and implicitly understands that one kiss on the cheek and a quick hug are restricted to meetings that occur in the evenings, after a long absence, or when exchanging gifts. Otherwise, a simple ‘Hiya’ will suffice before we settle down in front of a cappuccino.
A Belgian friend insists on three kisses. My Dutch friends engage in four. FOUR! It’s exhausting! But at least I know what to expect from them.
Things get sticky with those who, like me, don’t have a hard and fast rule. I recently said goodbye to a male friend who awkwardly went to kiss my right cheek, then lost heart and hugged me. Confused, I went to kiss his cheek, getting his ear instead. We hovered for a second, wondering if we should go through the whole ghastly dance again on the left side before silently and mutually agreeing not to. He left blushing while I stood feeling as clumsy as a 12-year-old boy.
So, I propose a cross-cultural greeting to be used when the guidelines are unclear – something along the lines of the Native American Indian ‘How’. A simple raised hand is certainly preferable to a mouth full of hair or a red face.