To Kiss or Not to Kiss?

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!”


14 thoughts on “To Kiss or Not to Kiss?

  1. Very well written post! It amuses me that being Chinese, I’m sure my culture and yours differ vastly, but on this instance, whoa – we’re totally on the same plane… 😀

  2. No, they don’t teach us how to kiss someone. I also hate this, you can’t imagine how much. Cold handshake for strangers and not so close friends, hugs for friends for special occasions, BIG hugs for (mostly female) friends that smell very nice. 🙂 I don’t know when, in which generation, we are going to get rid of that stupid kissing. Old 5 days bearded smelly people I barely know … awful! And after all they mark me as unsocial person. So, my Serbian advice : if they want to kiss you and they did not take a shower 5 minutes ago, brushed their teeth and you don’t really like them – tell them to go to hell.

    • So its not just me who finds this a completely unnecessary social behavior!! Thanks for your vote of support, I say lets just stop participating in the gesture and try to start a movement to phase it out completely 🙂

  3. Serbs ” invented ” those three kisses in a row just for luckiness ! Being a lucky number 3 means ” have a good fortune “. Knowing that all and living in Serbia and having used to it I still don´t approve it, especially in the flu season when plenty of bacteria and viruses are around us ! But what can I do when a familiar person approaches my way, with an obvious intention to give a hug and 3 cheek kisses to follow – shall I just step back and avoid him/her as if he/she was a leper ? I´d love to tell them all to go to hell, but I can´t. It would be rude, so I try to compromise with only a hug – it works !

  4. Hard an fast rule: Do exactly as you would do in USA, the ONLY difference being that whenever in the USA you would kiss 2 times, here kiss 3 times instead.

    Typically, in Serbia, excluding romantic and sexual relationships, kisses are primarily for:
    1) female-female or male-female close friends when meeting or parting ways: usually initiated by the female, one kiss (cheek of course), usually accompanied by a semi-hug.
    2) all gender combinations on special occasions to congratulate someone (birthday, birth of child, getting a degree, slava and so on): usually initiated by the person doing the congratulating, handshake, optional hug, 3 kisses (right-left-right).

    The rest of the time a handshake is fine. Oh, and IMO Serbian etiquette is very flexible. If you don’t want to be kissed as someone is starting to initiate it just “lock” onto the handshake and they will get the hint easily enough and it won’t be a big deal.

    • What detailed guidelines for the greetings!! I think I will post this on a little notecard and take it with me to parties!! Just Kidding! Thanks for this background information, I’m going to try “locking” onto the handshake, as you suggested, and hope its not offensive!!

      • We do not kiss like that all the time. You only kiss 3 times when you do not see person for a long time, or it is some sort of holiday/celebration.

        And you most definitely do not do it with strangers. Unless you are man and like a girl but even then you will wait for her to initiate this kiss.

        You might see it more often in USA because people are just nostalgic and often do not see each other for longer time while busy with work etc.

        love your blog btw!

  5. It’s not the same in all parts of Serbia tho. In Uzice, western Serbia, men don’t kiss each other, even if they haven’t seen one another for years. The three kisses are done only for Slavas, weddings and such, when greeting the host. Close friends kiss when they meet only if they haven’t seen each other for a while, but again, not men. With women and men only if they know each other well, with women it depends, but they generally kiss a lot with everyone 😀

    Hugs? Only in the family.

    • So interesting!! So, hugs are only for family? For me, I would only really be comfortable kissing family, for me, hugs are for strangers or close friends, kisses are more intimate, only for family. Its fascinating that Serbs see kisses as less intimate than hugs, and we view it opposite! No wonder its always a little awkward dance at the hello! Thanks for reading! 🙂

  6. I guess greetings are not the same for all parts of Serbia. I’m a guy from north and I usually don’t kiss except for birthdays, slavas, New years, or when meeting a good friend or family after we haven’t seen each other for a long time. Handshake is usually enough when meeting new people, but can be skipped if you’re meeting a friend you see each day. Saying “Ćao” is usually enough. To me, it’s strange when I see guys kissing female friends, and it would be really strange seeing guys kissing male friends. But it seems this is not strange in some parts of Serbia. I don’t do hugs. 🙂

    So, to summarize: although your experience might be accurate for a particular region, or even more likely, for particular group of people, I think it’s not the norm in Serbia for everyday greetings.

    • Thank you, I really appreciate this insight. I guess the greeting really differs by region. Of course, in the states, with 2,800 miles between coasts, our greetings vary by region quite a bit a well. I think Midwesterners (Like me) are more standoffish than say, southerners, for example. Im going
      to just start saying cao from now on and and call it a day. The only problem with that is that my husband will still kiss everyone and I will seem distant.

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