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.

  • 17
    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, 2013 at 11:57
  • 14
    Europe is not a single entity. Each country has its own rules.
    – mouviciel
    Dec 19, 2013 at 12:00
  • 3
    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". Dec 19, 2013 at 13:28
  • Related: Start cheek kissing on the left/right side
    – mouviciel
    Dec 19, 2013 at 14:41
  • If you spend any time in France, this could be handy: combiendebises.com Feb 24, 2017 at 1:39

4 Answers 4


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. 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.

  • 4
    To add on this answer: In Switzerland it is 3 times, starting with the left cheek. Dec 19, 2013 at 13:21
  • 5
    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, 2013 at 13:33
  • 5
    In Finland we don't kiss at all. A simple handshake is okay. Keep your distance though, we don't like close encounters. Dec 20, 2013 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.

  • 5
    I'd prefer spitting directly on the face.. No need to wash my hands later! Dec 21, 2013 at 11:18
  • 3
    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, 2013 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, 2013 at 11:49
  • Agree, this is good as a comment. Does not adress the main issue in question here Dec 21, 2013 at 12:21
  • 1
    OK, I expanded it to include the content of my earlier comment.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 21, 2013 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'.


European Strategy

As others have rightfully pointed out: there is no unique European greeting custom. Consequently there is no universally acknowledged strategy to avoid awkward situations. I however agree with my fellow travellers here: shake hands with strangers and with people to whom you are not close.

Physical contact is strongly linked to intimacy and familiarity. If however you become close to someone and wish to greet them with something warmer than a hand shake, then follow their lead. Or ask for the correct protocol. After all they are your friend so they'll understand your confusion.

What About France?

This is all nice and true and works in princple. What about France?

The easy rule for men: use handshakes and everything will be fine. Wherever you are: at the bar, at work, in the sauna, shake the hand and be happy.

With women however things are slightly more complicated. One simple rule is: when doing business, or when you are in a formal setting, always use handshakes.

Informal Get-Outs with (Female) Friends

However this changes completely when meeting up with friends, or friends of friends. The rule here is simple: greet the men with a handshake, greet the women with two kisses on the cheek. This applies if such women are already your friends, or if you are meeting them for the first time. This is termed faire la bise.

I have witnessed this in groups of all ages and between people of all regions across France. Moreover it's always fun when a male foreigner pulls his hand out for the classic shake and ends up bumping into the woman.

Needless to say this makes the greeting and goodbye phases not only very long in duration but also somewhat complicated with the combinations of kisses to give growing with the number of females in the group.

At the Workplace with (Female) Colleagues

Yes I have worked in France, and yes I have witnessed daily cheek kisses between male and female colleagues. Of course this applies to colleagues that are friends, whilst it does not apply between people that can't bear each other (but neither does the handshake) and subordinates wishing to maintain a formal relationship.

I also have some interesting stories regarding the official warning we all got from Human Resources during the H1N1 pandemic alert of winter 2009, explicitly mentioning la bise and how its practice should be limited in the office, but I'll leave that for another day.

Avoiding Awkward Situations

Since the OP explicitly mentions avoiding awkward situations in which one party expects one type of greeting and the other does not deliver, here I thought I would suggest a strategy often used in the real world.

If unsure you ask: on fait la bise? Meaning: should we kiss it out? It breaks the tension and allows you to get a feeling of what the other person thinks is the way to go. This applies both if you are a man travelling France or a foreigner woman who is not used to kissing strangers on the cheek, twice.

Final Words

Now I don't want to say: go out there and kiss every single French woman you meet. So if in doubt wait for her move. But be prepared, she will most probably expect two kisses on the cheeks.

  • France was not even mentioned in the question, why the long unrelated discussion?
    – Relaxed
    Nov 6, 2014 at 17:18
  • 4
    @Relaxed Why unrelated? The OP mentions Europe. The other answers explain that there is no unique custom across all European countries. I know of a particular custom in a particular country and think it is worth explaining it.
    – JoErNanO
    Nov 6, 2014 at 17:22
  • 1
    Worth adding that in the south of France, kissing is quite common even among male friends.
    – BioGeo
    Jan 6, 2017 at 9:14

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