I had the idea that in the West, when two men exchanged greetings, they shook hands, a man and a woman greeted each other by kissing both cheeks of the other person and girls just hugged each other. So, I decided to ask my French friend Géraud about it.
“You can greet everyone with kisses. Most men just shake hands because they think it’s manly,” said Géraud with a grin. We had shaken hands when we’d met a couple of days before this conversation.
In the Netherlands, I greeted my friend Harry with a regular handshake. When he introduced me to his girlfriend and her two female friends, I went ahead with the usual kiss on each cheek with the first girl and just as I was about to withdraw, I noticed she had leaned forward for a third kiss on the first cheek again. I got the drift and did the three-kiss routine with the other girls.
In Italy, I saw men and women follow the two-kiss greeting and girls hug each other. I saw a lot of men shake hands but two men of this Albanian family I met in Rome did kiss me on my cheeks. I reciprocated, of course!
I had met two German girls in Kolkata a couple of years ago and followed the two-kiss greeting. They seemed to smile a little too much but were too polite to point out they didn’t usually do it that way. Later, when I visited Germany, I found out that everyone, irrespective of gender, just hugged. So, when I met them again in Berlin, I knew what to do.
At a railway station in Japan, I saw two groups of people, evidently seeing one another after quite a bit of time. This woman ran out of the platform towards another woman who had come to receive her and both gave out shrieks of delight that the entire station heard and from the way they ran towards each other, I was sure they were going to hug.
But all they did when they came right in front of each other was shake hands and vigourously nod their heads.
The Japanese don’t hug, I realised.
In many foreign countries, some people would wait for me to initiate the greeting. The reason for this, I suppose, is because they were unsure of how I would react to their way of doing it. Some probably thought they’d scandalise the Indian guy if they did anything more than a “Namaste”!
Start with a smile, and just follow the local guy. That’s how I go about it.
(A modified version of this post has been published in The Telegraph)