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Going in for the Kiss: A Study of Greetings from an International Perspective

By Flor Ardi '15  |  april, 2014, Issue 1
Flor Ardi

Flor Ardi '15

Have you heard the story of the South American guy who leaned in to greet the American girl with a "kiss hello"? Appalled, the woman exclaimed that she was married and that his actions were inappropriate. As a Latin, learning to adapt to MBA culture and conduct myself appropriately I began right away with the "hello." I realized early on from the confused facial expressions of my peers that it might not be proper to salute everyone with a kiss.

The way people introduce themselves reflects important aspects of their culture's characteristics. For example, in some European countries including Spain and France, the traditional greeting is to give two kisses on opposite cheeks. Spaniards are known as passionate and the French as romantic; this tradition is very much in line with the way they are perceived. Similarly, in Latin America, people greet each other with only one kiss on the cheek. The Latin culture is known for its warmness and openness; the close contact implied by saluting with an early kiss demonstrates that. Alternatively, in the U.S. it is most common to shake hands when meeting, perhaps a reflection of the professional culture and respect for personal space that the U.S. is famous for. Further, in Asia, it is most common to bow or nod the head and avoid any physical contact in between the parties greeting each other. The bow echoes the culture of respect and courtesy characteristic of many Asian countries.

Context introduces even more complexity to these greetings. I see that while some Americans tend to be very protective of their personal space, this is not always the case. When Americans become friends they may choose to hug each other rather than extending a handshake. In some cases when they are familiar with other cultures' customs, they might try to respect their traditions by adopting them, so it is quite easy to get confused. I myself sometimes forget to use two kisses with Spaniards and the French and so the awkward non-corresponded head movement happens inevitably.

To avoid misunderstandings, many international students use a tactic that I like to call the "safe method." This means always greeting with a handshake at the risk of seeming cold rather than inappropriately warm. This "safe method" might be useful, but has the drawback of projecting an unintended distance that does not signal friendship—important in an MBA context.

Consequently, a strategy that has proven to be helpful, and that I have personally used, is to try to read the other party's intentions first and responding accordingly. Of course, this approach is fallible and one should be open to have some instances in which the reading does not work well. This strategy involves being able to shamelessly apologize when there is a misunderstanding. More often than not people will understand and this reduces the risk of coming off as too formal or distant, unnecessarily.

I love studying in a program that fosters diversity and getting to know different cultures. Embracing alternative approaches to beginning interactions enables an open mind from the very beginning—starting with "hello."

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Author, Florencia A. Ardissone is a passionate Latin that might use cultural pretexts as an excuse to kiss you. She is very much willing to learn and forget new greeting customs.

Last Updated 4/9/14
Last Updated 4/9/14