Friday, February 27, 2009

The Trouble with Cheek-Kissing

[Image: Kissing Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Mila Zinkova, 2006,
GNU Free Documentation License, Attribution Sharealike 2.5]

Theres a lot of stuff I'm still getting used to when it comes to Italian culture. One of the most awkward things has been the clash between the Northern European and Southern European styles of greeting.

In Northern Europe (certainly in the isles), we typically greet our closest friends with a hug. Doesn't have to be a massive bear-hug (unless we haven't seen them in a while) but hugging is common. Men hug women, women hug women and men hug men.

In Southern Europe, cheek-kissing is much more common. Men kiss women, women kiss women, and (only very rarely) men kiss men (much more usual between guys is a manly handshake). This has taken some getting used to.

Cheek-kissing is an almost ritualistic greeting/farewell. Each person in a given group must kiss every other person in the group - and so it can take some time to complete the ritual. In England, in situations like this, we can save time by simply waving at everyone and saying "Hi, guys!" In Italy, however, if someone starts a cheek-kiss, then the entire group has to kiss. I guess it helps a group to form bonds (much like getting drunk every weekend helps a group in England to bond... although, I'm not sure which method I prefer).

Generally, one doesn't actually kiss the person on the cheek in Trento. Instead, you touch cheeks and kiss the air in front of you. You do have to actually touch cheeks, though, because people tend to feel a bit jilted if you don't. One of my Italian friends has been telling me off because I haven't been touching cheeks properly (which she sees as a wishy-washy way of cheek-kissing).

It's difficult for me, being a fairly tall chap and not having had any practice at this, to get it right. I'll often misjudge and end up not touching cheeks (bad form). As cheek-kissing is normally done on both cheeks (mwah, mwah), one usually gets a second chance if the first cheek is a miss.

I honestly can't remember now if it goes left cheek first then right cheek or right cheek, left cheek. I do remember that at the beginning there would be some confusion with this, as one person would turn their face the wrong way and the pair would come face-to-face (wuh-woh!). This is, I suppose, another part of the ritual. As you get to know the act of cheek-kissing, the group harmonises and the act becomes automatic.

These differences in culture are fascinating. They can be little things, like trying to pass by someone as they are heading directly towards you in the street; instinctively you walk to the left (as that's the way one passes other people in England)... and they instinctively make for their right... so you end up bumping into each other.

The fun, of course, is in the learning!

[UPDATE: Because I've been getting so much traffic for this post, I've decided to update. In Italy, I kiss left cheek first, then right cheek. So that means when I approach somebody, first I turn my face to the right, then I turn my face to the left. Can't say for other countries, though!]

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