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Why is everyone greeting each other with cheek kisses these days?

The question

In my early 20s, I practised how to meet and greet people with a handshake (firm grip, eye contact) and a smile and a "How are you?" But as I've grown older, I find I have introverted tendencies at the best of times and love my space. These days, it seems that almost every greeting (hello and goodbye, or enjoyed that round of golf with you) requires some form of hugging and kissing the cheek or kissing the air. This seems to be the common salutation with family, friends, acquaintances and people who just landed on the golf tee sheet that day. What to do? Do you go left and right or one-sided? Kiss their cheek or kiss the air? Pretend to have a cold and fist-bump or try and throw out a preventative handshake? So confusing. Suggestions?

The answer

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Great question. It may sound like a minor matter but actually has huge significance, a rich history and obviously varies from culture to culture – even within a culture, as people adopt various affectations they figure are somehow European or spiritual or cool.

In fact, let's pause for a moment to consider the incredible multiplicity of ways it's possible to greet and/or show friendliness to someone you encounter in person.

Just off the top of my head, you can: single-or-double-cheek air kiss, single-or-double-cheek real kiss, hug, hug and kiss, hug and air-kiss, fist-bump, high-five, shake hands, enact two-handed hand "wrap" (accompanied by ultrasincere into-the-eye-stare), soul shake, secret handshake (when greeting a member of your clandestine society), shake-feint (beloved by teens since time immemorial: you act like you're going to shake hands then at the last second pull back to smooth your hair), hand kiss (sometimes preceded by mustache twirl and French utterance e.g. mon cheri), bow (perhaps throwing in a namaste), handshake-into-soul-shake-into-finger-snap, "shooting" the other person with a finger-and-thumb "gun" – the list goes on.

Even within a single handshake, there are a thousand subtleties and variations. How many pumps? How long do you hold on? Who decides to release first? Who initiates?

And it's always evolving as times change. I was taught to initiate with a man, but wait until a woman offered and not shake her hand if she didn't: Now that would be considered sexist and retrograde.

When it comes to men, I've always felt you can tell a lot about a guy from his shake: what he does for a living (love the callous-filled shakes of men who work with their hands), his self-image, even his intelligence level (for example, the guys who try to "crush" your hand are idiots).

In fact, in many cultures – such as Turkey, China, and Japan – the weak handshake is preferred and a too-firm grip considered rude. In Japan, moreover, just so you know, if you are from outside the country you are supposed to let the Japanese person initiate the handshake.

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I've taught my three boys to look people in the eye, shake their hands firmly, and say "Nice to meet you" or "How are you?" This baseline civility, I've found, makes hell's own impression on adults in this era of out-of-control, rude-nik kids – and, as they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Personally, though, I'm a fist-bump guy. I think these days, in North America at least, it's a matter of individual preference.

Your job is to teach people how you prefer to be greeted – especially those you see regularly. Basically, be quick to offer the thing you prefer, whether it be shake, bump, kiss, hug or whatever. Eventually, people will learn your preferred mode of greeting and reciprocate in kind.

Of course, there may be those who attempt to override whatever gesture you offer and/or embellish it – such as grab your outstretched hand and pull you in for a hug and/or kiss. It's hard to know what to do on these occasions, because to pull back and attempt to refuse the gesture could cause deep offence. On these occasions, you have my permission to draw back and say you have a cold.

For many of the reasons stated above, and your own statement that you "have introverted tendencies" and "like your space," may I make a pitch for my own preferred mode of greeting, the fist-bump? When offered up quick, it's hard to override. Also, your personal space is preserved, fewer germs are transmitted, and at this point it's widely accepted. (Hey, even the current American president is a fist-bump guy and fist-bumps his own wife – though obviously not when meeting other heads of state).

Also, it's something I find you can do frequently. If I'm working with someone, I might fist-bump them several times over the course of a few hours, to show solidarity and respect – a frequency which would be ridiculous and corny if we were shaking hands and over-the-top with high-fives.

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Whatever mode you do choose, stick to it and eventually, it will become a habit for you, and "common courtesy" for others to put your mind at ease and greet you the way you like to be greeted.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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