Yes, I thought this title would catch your attention - hopefully just in time for the mistletoe.
It's incredible how sometimes when expats are talking about things that worry them, instead of hearing stories of money troubles, children's education or mortgages, one sees furtive glances around followed by the apologetic whisper "I don't know when to kiss the locals!"
For many Anglophones, kissing as a greeting is still comparatively rare. Certainly it's OK between partners, children and parents, and perhaps between close family members, but pecking casual acquaintances on both cheeks remains something that's seen as a slightly suspect continental habit.
That's a little inaccurate though because not all non-English speaking countries accept hugging and kissing as part of polite social greeting. Even in continental Europe it tends to be less common in northern European countries where trying to kiss someone you hardly know by way of a casual 'hello' on the street is likely to get you a rapid elbow in the ribs!
This is of course a well-trodden path of discussion and many others have pointed out that even in reserved countries such as the UK, fashions are changing and kissing of casual acquaintances is becoming more acceptable. That maybe so, but social etiquette here remains a mystery to many Brits, Aussies and Yanks arriving in continental Europe. Clearly the message isn't getting through.
Here are a few tips which I hope will come in handy but I should also say - I'm no expert! Do also remember that customs vary country by country so check with a friendly local first!
1. In the vast majority of countries, a first meeting or two between people is always moderately formal and it is unusual for people to kiss each other the first time they meet. It is usually on subsequent meetings when people start to become acquaintances or casual friends that greetings make the move to kissing.
2. If you're a man and it's a new-ish female acquaintance, transitioning from a handshake greeting to a kiss normally means leaving the decision to the woman. If she offers a cheek and inclines towards you then offer a peck. Just walking up to women you hardly know and 'puckering up' can be seen as lecherous in some societies. Women tend to have more freedom in that respect!
3. In some countries kissing in public between men as a greeting is also acceptable though it tends to be reserved for family members or very good friends. As an expat it is advisable here to be guided by local practice and to avoid taking the initiative.
4. Don't try and plant big wet smackers on the person's lips! Kissing, as a greeting, is in most countries only a light touch on the cheek. Lip-to-lip contact is reserved for romantic encounters, partners or sometimes between very close family members - just as it is in the Anglophone world. Trying to 'plant one' on say your second ever meeting with a neighbour is likely to cause confusion and offence at best and at worst could get you a black eye.
5. In general, the cheeks only lightly touch or perhaps there is the lightest glance of lip-on-cheek. Try to avoid fixing limpet-like onto the side of someone's face!
6. The number of kisses exchanged is impossible to generalise on - just follow the local person's lead and don't chase them for "just one more" as they move away!
7. NEVER try to kiss someone in a formal business or a social situation. Your bank manager won't thank you for trying to grab him across his desk as you walk in. Equally people such as teachers tend to have a certain 'social role' in local societies that means they don't expect parents to kiss them at the school gates each evening etc.
8. Finally, body contact. Remember that personal space is personal space. As a general rule kissing when greeting or parting from people is restricted to cheeks-lips without any other body contact. You will fairly often see this accompanied by a hug, a hand on shoulder or more rarely a full embrace but this is almost always restricted to very close friends or family members. Don't slip you arm around a casual friend's waist when giving them a greeting kiss as it'll be misconstrued - unless that's your intention of course!
9. Finally, be careful with that mistletoe at the Christmas party. Not everyone is familiar with that particular custom and whipping out a bunch of twigs before chasing your colleagues around the room may come back to haunt you!