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Robyn Yousef: Language of the lips

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International greetings can be a nightmare, says Robyn Yousef.
The more Continental among us might go back for a second kiss on the other cheek. Photo / Shawn Ishihara
The more Continental among us might go back for a second kiss on the other cheek. Photo / Shawn Ishihara

You often get four before breakfast in France - in Belgium it's traditionally five. But, in some countries, it's best not to attempt it at all.

To kiss or not to kiss?

Knowing how to greet people as you travel to different destinations with various cultures, religions and customs can be a tricky issue. Often it's best to just offer a big smile and a polite nod of acknowledgement when you don't know what the accepted norm is.

We have problems enough here in New Zealand about if we should hug, kiss, hongi or simply shake hands. The results can be excruciating when you are unsure if you should be lurching in for a kiss or hold back for a long and meaningful hug. Things can go horribly wrong - like bumping noses, snagging spectacles or even worse, locking lips unintentionally.

Often a shy punch to the forearm is as intimate as some Kiwis get, but we're certainly much more demonstrative than we were a couple of generations ago, as our population has become increasingly multi-cultural and well-travelled.

We mostly settle for a handshake for business or a hug or a quick peck on the cheek for family, friends and acquaintances. The more Continental among us might go back for a second kiss on the other cheek.

But, as Kiwis have become more comfortable with European-style greetings, customs abroad have also changed.

I lived in Egypt in the 1970s and found when I went back in the late 1980s (post-Islamic Revolution out of Iran), the new religious norm made greetings - particularly between the opposite sex - a minefield.

Suddenly most of the women were wrapped in a hijab (traditional scarf covering the neck and head) or the whole caboodle covering their face and even hands, and many men sprouted beards proclaiming their pious natures. It was no longer acceptable to plant a friendly smacker on the cheeks of the men I'd worked side-by-side with a decade before.

My husband was flabbergasted to note that cousins with whom he'd grown up would no longer greet one another with a kiss on the cheek but insisted on a demure handshake. And then some of them would grab a piece of their voluminous covering and place it over their hands so it wasn't flesh-upon-flesh.

Of course, these religious reservations don't apply right throughout Egyptian and other Arab societies. And many other places New Zealanders travel to have a range of different styles of greetings.

Many Kiwis now know the standard Thai greeting called wai and some use it often here - especially to show off at their neighbourhood Thai restaurant. This involves a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai shows.

Sticking out your tongue is considered a polite greeting in Tibet, and for Inuit people from Greenland to Canada the special greeting is called the kunik. For this, people place their nose and top lip on the cheek or forehead of the other person and breathe in.

In China, the cupped hand bow has generally been replaced now by a handshake - head lowered to show respect. In the States, you can go for a bone-rattling handshake (but take care of elderly recipients who may suffer from arthritis - go with the "limp fish" version here) or, in some circles, a macho fist bump.

I was surprised when staying with good French friends that each day started (even before the espresso and croissants) with four kisses and in Belgium, the norm is five. In Egypt in the 70s, it used to be two and now women give each other three pecks on the cheek. And the same applies to the men greeting their male friends.

The important thing is to watch out for the old "lip-slip", which can be very embarrassing as you find yourself unintentionally locking lips.

And always remember a good, heartfelt Kiwi grin can go a long way to sealing good international relations.

- NZ Herald

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