If you’ve ever mingled with an international crowd and are even slightly awkward as a person, you’ve probably encountered the dreaded air kiss impasse. There’s no universal standard for how to cheek kiss, and most Americans are generally not accustomed to this type of greeting. Reflexes aren’t always sharp enough to keep the clumsiness at bay.
In One Kiss or Two?: In Search of The Perfect Greeting, diplomat Andy Scott points out that the kiss greeting is often found in heavily Catholic cultures like that of Italy, Spain and Latin America. This likely came from St. Paul himself, who instructed the Romans to “salute one another with a holy kiss,” which became a regular part of early Christian culture.
Fortunately, there are rules of thumb to follow if cheek kissing etiquette isn’t totally hardwired into your muscle memory yet.
Here’s the lowdown on how to cheek kiss in some of the countries and regions where you’re most likely to encounter it.
General Guidelines (No Matter Where You Are)
- In most countries where cheek kissing is the norm, you usually offer your right cheek first. No big deal if you both go in opposite directions — just laugh it off.
- Generally speaking, an air kiss is an air kiss. When in doubt, avoid planting your lips on the other person. It’s more of a “lightly touch your cheek to the other person’s cheek while kissing the air” kind of thing.
- If you’re not sure what the local customs are, follow the lead of the people you’re interacting with (meaning don’t go in for the kiss unless they initiate it first). It’s not customary in every culture to cheek-kiss total strangers, for instance, or work colleagues.
- In many cultures that use the cheek kiss, it’s uncommon for men to kiss other men (though more common between women, or between men and women). Men are more likely to greet each other with a kiss in certain places, including Argentina, Serbia and Southern Italy.
How To Cheek Kiss In…
Spain: Generally speaking, two kisses (one for each cheek) is the norm.
Italy: Two kisses is standard, but watch out — Italians tend to start with the left cheek. Also, try to save it for casual social environments (not networking events).
France: It’s usually two kisses (one on each cheek), but the customs vary so widely by region that someone made an interactive map of France based on polling data from actual French people. In some parts of the North, you might get four kisses.
The Middle East: Two to three kisses is the norm between friends and relatives, and usually not between men and women (unless you’re in the same immediate family). In the Gulf region, you might see people touch noses instead.
Latin America: In Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Peru, one kiss will suffice (and it’s sometimes paired with a hug, especially in Argentina).
The Philippines: One kiss (even for a new acquaintance).
Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands: Three kisses on alternating sides, starting with the right cheek. You might want to hold off if you’re just meeting someone for the very first time, but acquaintances often get the full treatment.
Greece: Two kisses, often followed by a hearty slap on the back.
Brazil: Generally speaking, two kisses is the average (it can be as many as three), and you might experience a little more warmth and intimacy than you would in Europe. However, it depends a lot on where you are. In São Paulo, for example, one kiss is the norm.
The Balkan Peninsula: In Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, it’s not uncommon to kiss three times.