I’m not a big social hugger. I hug my family and loved ones – and of course there are incidental exceptions – but unless you and I have really gone through some shit, I probably don’t want to hug you. The whole notion of body contact greeting makes me feel like an alien from the planet Autism. Why do we have to do this? Why do I have to rub my skin on your skin to show you that I acknowledge and appreciate your presence? Isn’t my hard-won eye contact and smiling enough? Nope. Brace yourself. They’re coming in.
I think the thing about hugging that makes me the most uncomfortable is not the why or how of hugging, but the when. I like rules and clear expectations. If you and I have established a hugging norm, I’m totally cool; it’s the unknown ambiguity that makes me squick.
Enter Amsterdam, the Star Wars Cantina of the world. Here you’re going to have to navigate pretty much every permutation of hug-kiss-handshake you’ve ever heard of.
The traditional Dutch greeting is a three-cheeked kiss. You start by moving to your left so that your right cheek mushes onto their right cheek, then to the other side, and then back where you started. Like all other cheek kisses, you’re basically just making a kissy noise next to someone’s face and kind of tapping your jaw on their jaw. There is a very small part of me that is curious what would happen if I started fully planting my lips onto someone’s face during this exchange. All three times. In practice, I don’t have the guts for that kind of social anarchy.
The literature would have you believe that Americans’ preferred style of greeting is the handshake, and I’ll buy that. I do think Americans are starting to favor the hug a bit more in professional contexts (especially among women) and I can’t advise against this strongly enough. I think it’s a function of the work-life blending that Americans love so much, and reinforces the idea that your colleagues are your closest friends, your work family. No ma’am. Let’s not hug at work.
Among Brits, a one cheek kiss seems to slightly win out over the French two cheek kiss, but Brits are a bit like Americans in that they’re up for just about anything. Except hugging. Brits don’t hug.
When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is a pretty safe bet. As an American, I feel fine leaning on that particular cultural stereotype and I will enthusiastically greet you with the firm handshake that all Americans are taught in school. When we’re saying goodbye for the evening, or seeing each other for the second or third time, that’s when things start to get a little murkier.
What’s even more complicated is that the greetings are gendered. Dutch women are expected to kiss-kiss-kiss other women, but men under the age of 80 are not going to kiss-kiss-kiss other men. Dutch men typically triple kiss women, but leave a gallant pause for self-agency and usually allow women to make the call. If you triple kiss a married person, their partner tends to be grandfathered into a triple kiss by association, the social contract apparently flexible enough to cover them both.
So we’ve got a wide variety of items on the greeting menu and no set of guidelines about when they should be deployed. Add a generous helping of Amsterdamse diversity to the melting pot and you’ve got a fucking mix ‘n’ munch of social awkwardness.
I hug my Mexican friend in North American sociable solidarity, and then triple kiss her Dutch husband. I shake hands with the British partner of my Dutch friend with whom I’ve just exchanged a one arm hug and single cheek kiss because she’s anglicized most of her Dutchiness away. I triple kiss everyone in my Dutch class, regardless of their country of origin, because sometimes it’s just fun. I hugged my Polish friend at her wedding and went to triple kiss her Dutch husband only to be thwarted by an awkward hug, the result of which put our faces into dangerously and comedically close proximity.
In a cross-cultural skin mashing body contact greeting scenario, it really comes down to two crucial split-second decisions: who’s going to lead and are they going to defer to the other person’s local custom or enforce their own?
High-fives all around.