One of the joys of what I get to do for a living is spending a lot of time in Brussels working at a trade level in Industry technical working groups (the topics are not always that interesting but at least I get to wave my science background around a bit sometimes). The real pleasure though is not so much debating the minutiae of global product regulations as much as meeting a lot of very interesting people from all over Europe and indeed globally. Mostly this is a wonderful opportunity to understand other ways of looking at things and realising my own narrow minded little views might need some tweaking. However, there is one issue. The greetings.
Everyone seems to do it differently and clichés aside there is not even consistency within people from the same country. Is it a handshake? Is there kissing involved, air or otherwise. On one side, on both sides? Which side first? Does it matter? I’ve been doing this for the best part of two decades and I confess that I still not understand it. Quite often the only defense is to smile broadly and hold out my hand in that ‘I’m British, I’m being friendly but still… keep your distance, please.’ Not that this always works. There are some colleagues who I would best describe as ‘Forces of Nature’ and if they have mind to envelop you in an effusive greeting then, well, you have to just go with the flow.
Some of my friends might find this apparent reticence of mine as being a bit odd. I’m a person who likes to hug and be hugged; I confess. I grew up in a family that did things that way and married into one that also shows love through physical contact. I’m aware that this is not the case with everyone, and some of my best friends are included in that category but I think I have at least learned with most of them where they are comfortable and some more recent friends have been on the receiving end of a blunt ‘are you are hug or no hug person?’ which has gone down surprisingly well – I think people appreciate you taking the time to think of their comfort before learning through potentially painful trial and error. I wish I had learned that lesson much earlier.
But for me kissing and a good bear hug are different things. One is more intimate than the other and it left me wondering why that is (obviously I’m talking about ‘chaste’ kissing not the full on ‘behind the bike sheds’ sort of stuff). Possibly in my case it is that while I grew up protected, warmed and comforted by my mother’s hugs, it was my late 20s before I really kissed anyone properly and that was in a romantic (as it turned out, only for me) context. So I guess that the association in my head is that one is a far more intimate act than the other and therefore leads to the discomfort when the lips approaching are not those of my Lovely Wife.
But I cope. After all, the important thing is showing respect – and liking – for people we know, spend fun time with or work with.
My worry, and why we should all show some caution, is to keep whatever contact with our fellow human beings appropriate and comfortable with the other person concerned, something that has and is often ignored in all areas of society. Ask them if it is alright. After all, as a Brit, shaking hands is a matter of relatively little intimacy (though sometimes of much weight depending on the situation) but in some cultures is not at all the way to proceed.
At least asking shows sensitivity and respect, and there is not enough of that about.
Oh, and I am always open for a hug. If appropriate.