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I have to ask this because I'm Asian and we don't do any of these things there. I have been living in the UK and Germany for a while and I still can't understand how to do all of that in Europe.

If I don't know what to do, what's the best thing to do to stay safe and not insult people? I was in an awkward situation when I shake her hands instead of hugging.

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It's happening all the time to European people as well, there are many differences between countries or regions. I think foreigners have some leeway in this and I don't think anybody is likely to be offended, usually a misstep would just start a short conversation. Don't be afraid to comment on it if you feel some awkwardness, people would likely be happy to explain. –  Relaxed Dec 19 '13 at 11:57
Europe is not a single entity. Each country has its own rules. –  mouviciel Dec 19 '13 at 12:00
I seem to shake hands a whole lot more often when I'm in Asia than when I'm at home in Australia. Plus in Asia, I never know when or how deeply to bow or use a wai or nop, not to mention "sniffing each other"! Obviously these customs vary across Asia and customs also vary across the western world so you'd need to ask specific questions or be satisfied with answers like "it depends". –  hippietrail Dec 19 '13 at 13:28
Related: Start cheek kissing on the left/right side –  mouviciel Dec 19 '13 at 14:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Great question!

As it has been already mentioned in the comments. There is no such thing as a "European" protocol. Look at kissing. In the Netherlands people tend to kiss three times. In Belgium it is one kiss on greeting. In Sweden hugging is the way to go, when meeting people. Kissing is considered more intimate. In France people kiss either 2 or 4 times. However, even since the custom is three kisses in the Netherlands there are still quite some who really don't like the kissing and always approach with a firm hand. You indicated that you do the same, which I think is the best thing you can do.

Personally I do kiss on the cheek as a greeting, but not always. It is a subtle nuance hard to explain. If you are okay with handshakes you shouldn't worry. First people are in general quite considerate and will understand that with your different background you can't be expected to know the greeting standards. I have known people who just used the custom from their background, being either a small bow or a greeting with the hands put together and a subtle head down. It is the gesture that counts. People meeting you will probably appreciate you and your cultural background and will like the gesture.

I am not saying that everybody will accept it, but those that don't will have more issues, so it is not worth being bothered about them.

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To add on this answer: In Switzerland it is 3 times, starting with the left cheek. –  RoflcoptrException Dec 19 '13 at 13:21
In Italy it's two times kissing man <-> woman or woman <-> woman and hand shake man <-> man (even tho in the south it's common kissing between men too). –  Geeo Dec 19 '13 at 13:33
In Finland we don't kiss at all. A simple handshake is okay. Keep your distance though, we don't like close encounters. –  Esa Paulasto Dec 20 '13 at 11:00

Greetings have in fact been studied extensively by anthropologists and even by ethologists. For example, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt describes many of them in some of his books. Not much practical advice but truly surprising stuff. For example, spitting on the palm of your hand and rubbing it on the other person's face, or turning around and bending forward to present your naked buttocks and genitals are two ways to greet strangers that are (or were?) reportedly practiced in some human societies.

In Europe, I have mostly seen handshakes, kisses on the cheek, hand-waving or other gestures without physical contact, and hugs (possibly together with kisses and a handshake) but the details also vary a lot between countries and social settings: you kiss twice, three or four times; you only kiss people you already know or only between women or between a man and woman more rarely between men, handshakes might be for the first time you meet, once a year, or every day. Fist bumps seem extremely rare, to me it's something teenagers could do while being fully aware that it's not the regular way to greet. Bringing your hand back on your chest after shaking hands is rare but I have seen it too.

Because of this, mistakes happen all the time to European people as well, just be alert and don't worry too much about doing it wrong. At the end of the day, I think foreigners have some leeway in this and I don't think anybody is likely to be offended. Usually a misstep would just start a short conversation. Don't be afraid to comment on it if you feel some awkwardness, people will likely be happy to explain and have some way to overcome the awkwardness.

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I'd prefer spitting directly on the face.. No need to wash my hands later! –  MeNoTalk Dec 21 '13 at 11:18
Is this not more of a comment than an answer? Since it doesn't directly address the question, just the general area... –  Gagravarr Dec 21 '13 at 11:47
Perhaps, I just thought it would be a bit long for a comment (ironically, my comment probably addressed the question more directly). –  Relaxed Dec 21 '13 at 11:49
Agree, this is good as a comment. Does not adress the main issue in question here –  MeNoTalk Dec 21 '13 at 12:21
OK, I expanded it to include the content of my earlier comment. –  Relaxed Dec 21 '13 at 13:42

When doing business in Europe (Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Germany, French, Sweden, Denmark) I have always used handshakes. It allows you physical contact without invading their personal space. By making physical contact you give people a signal that you trust them. I have always felt kisses were to much up close, and could be awkward.

Meeting with friends is a different story, most of the time it was just a nod and 'hi' but depending on the circumstances kisses, fist bumps and belly bumps were exchanged.

My advice would be, if meeting new people, just a handshake and an short introduction (perhaps just your first name) and see what the other party 'proposes'.

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protected by Mark Mayo Dec 27 '13 at 14:25

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