International Kissing Day: French greeting makes headway in Germany

When I arrived in Germany 12 years ago, one of the first things to take me by surprise was the amount of handshaking that goes on here. An appointment with my banker opened with a handshake. With the realtor, too. At work, I walked into office after office, meeting new colleagues, each of whom wanted to shake my hand. Even the yoga teacher at my first class put her hand out to introduce herself.

Handshaking, I learned, was the formal means of greeting in Germany. As Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere wrote in his 10 treatises toward a German Leitkultur published in April, in Germany “we put out our hand as a greeting.”

Courtney Tenz (A. Berry)

Courtney Tenz still gets confused by proper kiss-kiss protocol

Although I had rarely done it in the US —  perhaps because I am a woman or because I was seldom in a professional environment — here I am expected to keep my right hand free at all times, just in case someone new were to arrive and I would need to outstretch my arm.

Kiss-kiss: the French greeting

Once all the introductions were out of the way and I had gotten accustomed to shaking hands, however, a new problem presented itself: the social greeting. While it may have felt stiff to put out my hand in a professional situation, at a party it felt downright odd to maintain that level of formality. What do you do once you get to know people well?

Turns out, Germans have taken a cue from the French in recent years. Instead of putting their hand out, people I know are now pulling me in close and air-kissing first my right cheek, then my left.

A bit of a shock at first – most people, myself included, consider Germans too rigid for a gesture like that – social kissing is en vogue among the younger generations.

I can see why: it surely makes more sense to share this tiny bit of affection with a close friend than to put your out hand in greeting.

At the same time, this newly adopted form of greeting has raised so many questions for me, namely centering on the question: who gets a kiss-kiss and who still gets a handshake?

With some friends, mostly Americans, the answer is clear: neither. Rolling our eyes at what we might call “putting on European airs,” we greet each other with a smile and a nod and that’s perfectly fine. With other friends, those from Latin America or Italy or France, I know to expect the kisses on the cheeks – it’s a part of their culture. But with Germans I’m still quite unsure of myself.

Erich Honecker and Iljitsch Brezhnev kissing (picture-alliance/dpa/Spiegl/S.Simon)

The ‘socialist fraternal kiss,’ as seen here between German communist leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1979

Know the rules before puckering up

I’m not the only one, either. When I asked my group of friends how they determined who to kiss in greeting, none of them could answer. “If you find out what the rules are, let me know,” said one.

Another said that although she decided who to kiss on a case-by-case basis, it was clearly something that you only did with good friends and only with a friend of the same sex. “I’d never greet a male friend that way,” she said.

That sounded strange to me, considering my very best friend has never given me a kiss on the cheek but the husband of another friend has done so every time we run into each other.

While it’s clearly not a romantic gesture, I wonder, would he greet another man that way? The East Germans did, after all, have the full lip kiss as part of their socialist-era traditions, so I know men are not limited to the handshake.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron kiss at a meeting of European Union leaders (Getty Images/S.Gallup)

Cheek-to-cheek: Merkel (right) usually greets French leaders with a kiss

According to Rainer Wälde, an etiquette expert and author of the book, The Big Guide to Etiquette, (Der Grosse Knigge) the rules are quite simple: kisses on the cheek are limited to friends and family, people who you like or don’t mind being touched by.

Never, he writes, in a professional setting, where the room for misunderstanding is too great.

That potential for misunderstanding explains why, in 2011, the German etiquette group, the Knigge Society, called for a ban on kissing in the workplace, even for those friendly two-cheek kisses.

Although the ban never went through, most etiquette guides seem to agree that the double-peck belongs only outside of the office.

So while Chancellor Angela Merkel may be greeting French President Emmanuel Macron with the customary two kisses, the Knigge Society recommends colleagues and professional peers stick to the handshake.

It is, after all, the typically German thing to do.