I’ve got a fantastic handshake. I’ve developed the perfect amount of pressure – neither flimsy and weak, nor overbearing and aggressive, just the right balance of friendly assertiveness. I’ve been developing my technique ever since I shook the hands with the President of the United States when I was 4 years old. It was at a public appearance back in the Midwest and my ultra-political family had taken me to meet the big guy. As a little girl, I thought nothing was unusual about this at all; in fact, I was thrilled to shake the hands of the President of the United States. From this moment on, I knew that handshakes were the proper way to greet people. Eye contact, a smile, and a firm, confident, handshake are the beginnings of a good first impression. I used this tried and true tool to greet friends, teachers, coaches, and later on, the passengers on board the plane I piloted. My dad and my brothers would sometimes shake hands with each other and none of this struck me as abnormal until I started dating my Serb. Gone were all the familiar handshakes of my white bread American upbringing – they were replaced with kisses and hugs. Kisses and hugs?! I recoiled at the thought of being required to kiss and hug complete strangers when I barely displayed this behavior with close friends. This to me seems completely artificial. Why would I kiss someone I’d just met? It seemed strange, forced, and fake. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t hesitate to bear-hug someone I love, but to kiss a frienemy? I know I speak for many when I say – WTF?
Not only was the concept of kissing complete strangers very foreign to me, the idea that straight men would kiss each other seemed really unnatural. Ok, so 4 years later and I’ve accepted it as one of the many cultural differences. I put it in the same category as making a feast for someone when they just stop by for coffee; draining, a waste of energy, and totally unnecessary. However, Serbs would probably think some American social norms are equally pointless, such as asking about someone’s day or telling someone they look great. A Serb would skip the pleasantries, tell you you’ve gained weight, and talk about politics instead of the weather. To each his own.
The execution of the greeting itself is dangerous territory – shake hands and a Serb might think you are being too formal, kiss and the American might feel uncomfortable, hug, and you wonder why you are holding each other like a long-lost friend who returned from war. Let’s say you decide to kiss, is it 1 kiss, 2, the Very Serbian 3 kisses, or the never-ending 4 kiss dance? What if they kiss you an extra time? What if they go left when you go right, and you end up making out with a complete stranger? (I’ve been a victim to the accidental smooch at least twice so far). What if you start out with a kiss when you first meet them – do you need to continue this charade for as long as the relationship continues? If you downshift to a side hug and 1 kiss on the cheek, is this a barometer for the friendship? If we kiss hello, must we also kiss goodbye? Where does it all end? Are you actually supposed to kiss their check or are you supposed to pretend and do “air kisses” like the French? If so, is that considered insincere? Maybe I should just stick my face out in anticipation and let the other party do their thing.
In America, we teach our children how to shake hands; do they teach people how to kiss in Serbia? Do teachers sit down with their students, and say, “Now children, its: enter the comfort zone swiftly, left hand lightly on right forearm, start with a left, right, left in perfect rhythm, and then exit with a smile?” In the US, they’d be sued for sexual harassment! It seems I’m not the only one dreading this awkward formality when I greet Serbs, they too, seem a little unsure in whether to shake my hand, hug me, or kiss me like I’m one of their own kind. But it doesn’t feel right if they kiss my husband jubilantly 4 times and then stare at me and wave like I’m some kind of leper. I think it’d be easier if we just eliminate all possibility of social faux pas and just greet each other with a simple high-five! As Jerry Seinfeld said, “I’m going on record right now. That was my last kiss hello!”