There are times when an American shakes someone’s hand but very rarely, if ever, do they kiss an acquaintance or friend. Here in Switzerland you are forever holding out your hand to shake someone else’s. They start learning these manners early, in school you are taught when you come into the classroom you stand in line to shake your teacher’s hand and when you leave you shake hands again to say goodbye. It shows respect.
There was a male elementary school student in the national news lately who refused to shake his female teacher’s hand. There is a lot more background information to this story, cultural differences among other things, but let it suffice to say the student was suspended from school for not shaking hands with his teacher. That is how seriously they take it here.
It took me awhile to get comfortable with shaking hands. I was told to give a nice firm handshake but not to break any bones while doing it and not to give a spongy type of shake. You usually encounter the spongy shakes from school kids but when you occasionally get one from an adult they are awful. Somehow you think that is a reflection of their personality, wishy-washy comes to mind. I do it almost as a second nature now and more times than not I would now feel uncomfortable if I didn’t shake hands when meeting someone or when leaving.
Of course, you don’t shake hands with everyone. Family and friends get a different kind of greeting. You can skip the shake and move right into a friendly hug along with 3 cheek kisses: left, right, left – smack, smack, smack. You don’t normally make mistakes about who to kiss and who not to kiss. Fairly clear-cut. Friends are a must-kiss along with close relatives. Relatives that aren’t so close and you only see once every couple of years might get a handshake when you see them but when leaving they usually get kisses and hugs.
I believe that in some parts of Switzerland you only give two kisses. In that case there can be some confusion because one person is pulling away after two kisses and the other person ends up doing an air-kiss. Then there is usually a small discussion as to how many kisses are to be given and life continues.
It happens occasionally that while shaking hands you get slightly tugged toward the other person and the hand shake turns into a small hug, with or without the 3 kiss ritual. But that isn’t bad because you more often than not know the person well enough anyway.
This ritual is really for everyone. I thought it was strange the first time I saw some youths on the street with their spiked, glowing pink and green hair wearing studded black leather jackets with black polished fingernails holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other greet each other with three kisses. There were no hugs because you might spill some beer on the other person! Now that would be an embarrassing faux pas.
A couple years ago at a friend’s wedding I saw another friend’s daughter who I hadn’t seen in a while. She looked so grownup so my reaction was to give a quick hug and the three kisses. Without thinking that was what I did. She looked a bit surprised but no harm done. Wait. Come to think of it, I think she did sort of avoid me the rest of the day.