Home Culture How International Greetings are Changing (And Not) During Social Distancing

How International Greetings are Changing (And Not) During Social Distancing

by Calli Zarpas
How Social Distancing is changing International Greetings

When you see someone and you want to greet them, what is your go-to? A hug? A little wave? A handshake? Or maybe a fist bump? Well, in countries around the world there are a lot of other ways to greet someone. In a lot of European and South American countries including Spain, France, The Netherlands, and Brazil, you greet by kissing one another. In Spain, this is just one kiss on each cheek. In France, it can be up to five kisses back-and-forth on the cheek depending what region you’re in (in mine it’s only two). In the Netherlands, it’s three kisses on the cheek (right-left-right), and in Brazil, you’ll kiss someone one to three times. 

I still vividly remember the first time I ever experienced la bise, the French version of greeting with a kiss, and it was pretty uncomfortable. I was probably seven- or eight-years-old and I had a friend in my ballet class whose family was from France. One weekend, she was having her birthday party so my mom dropped me off with a gift and drove away. As I was walking up the driveway, a lot of the other party members came up to greet me, including some of my friend’s cousins who came and kissed me on my cheeks. 

Growing up in a family with Mediterranean heritage, I was used to being shown love through touch, but I had never been a part of such an intimate greeting with a complete stranger. To this day, I can’t remember my friend’s name or what the birthday party was like, but I can still remember how one of her cousin’s scratchy beards felt on my cheeks. 

I still vividly remember the first time I ever experienced la bise, the French version of greeting with a kiss, and it was pretty uncomfortable.

And my discomfort with la bise doesn’t end there. When I first moved to France, I never knew when it was appropriate to faire la bise. I started out in France as an au pair, so I knew I did la bise with the parents when they got home from work, and I knew I did la bise with their grandparents when they came for the weekend from Lyon, but there were a lot of gray zones. Did I do la bise with the parents of the children’s friends or with the cleaning lady who I didn’t know very well? Did I do la bise with the grandfather in the morning (though he didn’t seem interested) like I did with the grandmother when they came to visit (because she approached me to do so)? 

Even now when I hangout with people I don’t know I’m not sure whether or not to faire la bise. Technically when you arrive at a party you need to go up and faire la bise with every single person in the room. The same goes for arriving at work. You should go around to everyone at their desks and faire la bise with them. But, sometimes it makes more sense to break those rules. For example, if I’m meeting new people and they’re all sitting tightly at a table, it might be really awkward for me to squeeze past everyone to greet each person with la bise, so I usually settle on a wave. 

But, ever since we’ve started social distancing in France, the lines have gotten even more blurred. Before the quarantine rules started easing up in France, I had already heard the French complaining about people being really reserved in public. Since France is a touchier culture usually they’re not afraid to push up against each other waiting for their baguette in the boulangerie, or to get close on public transportation, but since the COVID-19 pandemic people have been much warier (understandably). 

But, some of the French haven’t appreciated the looks they get from others when they move to close in the grocery store or the judgment they get if they’re on a walk without a mask. I ran into one of my coworkers at the grocery store and she complained about some people’s attitudes saying it was, “un truc de fou,” or something crazy. This difference in opinions also goes for la bise. This past weekend I went to visit my boyfriend’s family on the coast of northern France, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect regarding la bise. Since we were going to be in close quarters for a few days, we did la bise with his immediate family, but when his grandmother came to visit it was less obvious of what to do. 

The whole situation showed me how even within families you’ll find differences about how they’re dealing with la bise during the pandemic.

Finally, when we got inside his mother said their whole family wasn’t doing la bise because of social distancing so we didn’t do it with her, but the whole situation showed me how even within families you’ll find differences about how they’re dealing with la bise during the pandemic. All of this got me thinking about how the pandemic is affecting touchier cultures around the world. For me, it’s way less complicated to live in a version of France where no one does la bise, but for French people who have grown up doing la bise their whole lives, it’s weird for them not to be able to do it. My boyfriend often complained about the fact that we didn’t do la bise in the United States. He thought a hug felt too intimate. 

If you’re feeling the same awkwardness when greeting no matter where you are in the world, I wanted to share some greetings from cultures that involve no touching. You might be starting to trade in hugs or kisses for foot-bumps, but there are some cultures where no-touch greetings already exist. In India and Nepal, you might hear people greeting one another by saying namaste with pressed palms (called mudra). Nowadays, namaste might have lost its cultural meaning in the United States with its overuse on T-shirts, but when you greet someone with a bowed head and namaste, it has a really beautiful meaning: “the Divine within me bows to the same Divine within you.”

In Zambia, a lot of people greet with handshakes, but you can also greet people by cupping your hands and clapping while saying “mulibwanji” (meaning “hello,” used any time of the day) or “mwakabwanji” (good morning). Although this greeting is understood by all Zambians no matter what class or ethnic group (Zambia is home to more than 70 ethnic groups), the greeting changes slightly depending on who you’re talking to. If you’re greeting your in-laws you need to squat down low while clapping, and when you meet your elders you should place a hand on your chest and stomach, and bend your knees slightly.
So while there are people in touchier cultures that are struggling to leave their old greetings behind (myself included), it’s nice to know that there are cultures who have carried out meaningful and touching (no pun intended) greetings for generations without the need to physically touch one another. I hope that as our world continues to evolve, all cultures can participate in greetings that are safe for our health (and I hope that I will finally understand when exactly to faire la bise).

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