I write these words as an American (and perhaps you’re reading them as one, too, if there still is an America at the time of this article’s publication). While we here in this country might lack a commonly agreed-upon modus operandi when it comes to physical expression, there are places in the world where they have things like “customs” and “protocol.”
First off, chances are good that the occasion of a visit from the Brussels office isn’t a good time to get huggy—workplace customs are fraught enough without the added potential for cultural misunderstanding. But what
do you do? Herewith, some highly subjective and unscientific guidelines.
Europe, Northern: These people will happily get completely starkers with you in a sauna, but they’re not especially physically demonstrative. I know, I think it’s weird, too.
Europe, Southern: Red-wine people tend more often than not to be cheek-kiss people. This freaks Americans out, because we don’t know how to kiss anything that isn’t a baby without spinning out into a puritanical lust-guilt cycle.
Russia: That’s not a hug, he’s just patting you down to check for wires.
Asia and the Middle East: These countries have been practicing social conventions since before Europe even got it together enough to die in droves of the Black Plague, so fucking do some Google research and try not to screw it up too badly, you barbarian.
Australia: These people will hug, arm-wrestle, back-slap, whatever. Think of them as Americans who know a lot about bugs.
Africa: It’s a big place. Find out what country your visitors are from, Google it, and then default to shaking hands like you always do.
Latin America: Also cheek-kiss people, but sometimes just the one cheek. The disaster here is when you think you’re being culturally correct, but you forget that you don’t kiss the other cheek and wind up smacking your forehead straight into the forehead of the person you’re trying to greet, making the notion of a “first impression” regrettably literal.
Canada: Do whatever you want to these people; they’re too nice to say anything. Tell them that butt-patting is a time-honored (honoured!) tradition in your state/city/men’s club, and they will fall all over themselves trying to lay their paws on your bottom, no matter how much it’s killing them inside.
Canada, but Quebec: WARNING: THESE ARE DOUBLE-CHEEK KISS PEOPLE. YOU THINK THEY’RE CANADIAN, BUT THEY’RE NOT. THEY WILL NOT FALL FOR YOUR TRICKS—USE EXTREME CAUTION.
England: Sweet Jesus, don’t touch the English. The only way to win the affection of an English person is to land a particularly nuanced insult, and he or she will express that affection by drinking you under the table at some absurdly early-evening hour.
Antarctica: AAAAAAH, IT’S A PENGUIN!!! HUG IT! IT’S THE CUTEST THING!!!
This is excerpted from “That Was Awkward: The Art and Etiquette of the Awkward Hug,” by Emily Flake, which is forthcoming from Viking.